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Mangalsingh Rongphar
Date of Publish: 2015-10-03

 Jatinga -Where birds forget to fly

The mystery of birds behaving against their nature continues in Assam’s Jatinga village

Mangalsingh Rongphar

 

Haflong is Assam’s only hill station. It is a small, breathtakingly beautiful town in the North Cachar Hills district bordering Nagaland. Nestled 1683 feet above sea level, it throws up many a scenic sight because of its abundant greenery and a blue mountain chain that touch the horizon. Bouts of cool breeze, friendly residents and the clean surroundings add to its attraction, making it nearly a slice of heaven on earth! 

The town is a melting point of many communities. Besides people belonging to different tribes like the Dimasas, the Karbis, ZemeNagas, Hmars, Kukis, Biates and Hrangkhols inhabit Haflong, thus giving the town its own linguafranga, locally known as Haflong Hindi.

Haflong is also the contact point for a unique natural phenomenon, known not just in India but outside it too; known not just to nature and bird lovers but to others too. A reason why many people from across the country and outside it have been showing an interest in visiting the area.

The point of this particular global interest lies in Jatinga, a picturesque village inhabited by the Jaintia community, nine kms off Haflong town. For long, Jatinga is believed to be a unique place in the world where flocks of birds mysteriously congregate on certain nights and behave against their nature. Many birds may have lost their lives due to it over the centuries. Researchers and conservationists have been studying the reasons behind the mystery without being able to pin down the exact cause yet.

A strong -- and pretty widespread -- misconception has also been thriving along with the popularity of this mystery though. It is that the birds behave strangely and thereafter commit suicide.

The birds do behave strangely on certain nights in Jatinga but the reality is, they don’t kill themselves. Instead, they fall easy prey to hunting villagers.

Located on a spur of the Borail hill range, Jatinga today is a modern, developed village comprising 363 households. Its population of 2027 has an impressive literacy rate of 83.91 per cent, which is higher than the average of the entire State of Assam. It is also famous for its fruit production, particularly for the size and taste of its oranges. Surrounded by rows of blue mountains, and with blobs of grey clouds hang from their summit, Jatinga is impressive to look at. River Jatinga gurgles by the mountain range. A four-lane highway connecting Haflong with Lumding and Silchar towns snaking down the valley can also be seen from Jatinga.

The news of villagers hunting birds have led quite a few non-governmental organisations and bird conservationists to work with them for some time now. Regular meetings and discussions now take place to spread awareness among them about the need to protect the bird species. So even if hunting of birds in Jatinga might take occur at times, no villager is willing to talk about it as openly as they used to once. Even the State Forest Department has expressed its worry about rampant bird killing in Jatinga for years together.

However, to understand this age-old hunting binge of birds by Jatinga residents, one has to look at history. The word ‘Jatinga’, as per the dialect of Zeme Nagas, means the path of rainwater. Before the Jaintias occupied the village, it was inhabited by Zeme Nagas as far back as in 1890s. They were the first to note the strange behaviour of birds after setting forest patches on fire at night to clear them for farming, etc. Flocks of birds used to fall on the fire. It scared the Zeme Nagas who took them to be apparitions falling from the sky. So much so that they vacated the village.

In 1905, the Jaintias came to live in Jatinga under the leadership of one Lathangbang Suchiang. Some villagers soon discovered this phenomenon when they went to the forests at night with torches of fire. Seeing flocks of birds racing towards the torches, they however, thought it to be god’s gift to them.

Villagers say birds behave strangely from August till October. It occurs only in certain natural circumstances though. There should be a moonless night and the entire mountain range should be covered with mist. Also, winds must blow from northwest towards northeast accompanied by light rain.

In such a natural situation, birds flying from the northwest towards the north east get caught in that wind and seemingly lose their way. On seeing fire, they begin to fly down towards the source of light. They become motionless once they reach near the fire. And forget to fly.

Some villagers, who are still not aware of the importance of conservation of wildlife, then very easily catch them and thereafter kill them for food. Some birds also sit quietly on bushes near the fire. The locals catch them too, with the help of long bamboo poles. This easy opportunity for bird meat has led to the local tradition of lighting fire in the forests on certain nights to catch them alive.

However, only a certain species behave this way. This includes birds like Indian Rudy, kingfisher, Indian pitta, green pigeon, black drongo, green heron, spotted dove, quail, etc.

Also, the phenomenon is seen only in a certain mountainous patch ofJatinga.  Some experts believe that birds behave in a strange manner in Jatinga because of its unique weather conditions. It may also be due to creation of an electro-magnetic ring around that area which may affect the nervous system of the birds flying over it, leading them to slow down, get confused and begin flying towards the source of light, which in this case is the fire lit by the waiting villagers. Research has revealed that more birds undergo this strange behaviour when their habitat gets flooded with rain water.

This bird mystery of Jatinga first found a formal mention in 1957. British ornithologist E P Gee mentioned it in his book “Wildlife of India.” There he said, “The whole thing is extraordinary.”

In 1977, a team of the Zoological Survey of India followed it up by visiting Jatinga. From then on, Jatinga got famous among American, European and Japanese experts.

Well known Indian ornithologists Salim Ali, Sudhir Sengupta and A. Rafe studied this phenomenon. But they couldn’t pin down a clear idea about it. Salim Ali wrote thus: “The most puzzling to me about this phenomenon is that many species of diurnal resident birds should be on the move when, by definition, they should be fast asleep. It deserves deeper scientific study from various angles.”

With individual studies by interest groups continuing without reaching a solid basis behind the mystery, Jatinga continues to attract attention of both birders and tourists alike.

(Mangalsingh Rongphar is a freelance writer and an Extension Officer in the Panchayat and Rural Development Department, Assam )

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