Birds In Northeast India Continue
Plunging To Their Deaths

JATINGA, India (AFP) - A bizarre phenomenon of flocks of birds committing "suicide" in this remote village in India's northeastern state of Assam has foxed experts and the strange behavior remains a mystery.
From August to October, when the night is moonless and foggy, accompanied by wind and drizzle, Jatinga, a village on a ridge in the North Cachar Hills district, 334 kilometers (207 miles) south of Assam's capital Guwahati, turns into an island of searchlights and lanterns.
Armed with catapults and bamboo poles, groups of villagers assemble outside their homes almost every night with torch flames and lanterns hung overhead, waiting for the "dying birds."
And in no time, the slopes and hills of Jatinga buzz with the twitter of species of birds in agony, plummeting to the ground like ghosts from nowhere.
For almost three hours until midnight, the tiny hamlet becomes a nightmare for a bevy of birds that come dashing to the light source to be captured and killed by villagers.
Curiously, most of the birds do not attempt to fly away from the lights. They look dazed and disheveled, almost traumatised by the experience.
The villagers get going in no time, bringing down birds hovering around the light sources by a vigorous swing of the bamboo poles. They use catapults to shoot those in flight or those perching on trees and bushes nearby.
"In the past, the haul of one night sometimes reached 500 to 600 birds with around 200 as the maximum by one person," Heren Langthasa, a tribal villager said.
"But now a single person in one night manage to catch 50 to 60 birds," Langthasa told AFP.
Legend has it that the Zemi Naga tribal villagers at Jatinga were the first to witness the phenomenon in the late 19th century when disoriented birds in their thousands flocked to a bonfire lit by the locals in a paddy field to scare away wild pigs.
The experience frightened them, as they believed the birds were evil spirits swooping down from the sky. Eventually the Zemi Naga tribe deserted Jatinga.
The Jaintias, another tribe which moved to Jatinga in 1905, stumbled on the phenomenon while going into the hills at night with flaming torches to round up cattle. The bamboo torches attracted showers of birds, which the Jaintias regarded as a "god-sent gift."
Experts say that up to 50 species of birds get killed, including the Tiger Bittern, Black Bittern, Little Egret, Pond Heron, Indian Pitta and Kingfishers.
The experts however say the birds do not commit suicide but are killed by villagers under circumstances not yet fully explained.
"The birds get caught in the fog, get disoriented at their roost by the very high velocity of wind. It is highly probable that the birds come towards the light sources set up by the villagers for refuge and in the process get killed or captured," said Anwaruddin Choudhury, author of "The Birds of Assam."
"However, the entire phenomenon still continues to be a mystery, but it is a fallacy that birds commit suicide in Jatinga," he told AFP.
Local people are beginning to become aware of the need to conserve the bird population, experts say.
"We must create awareness about the danger of the entire bird species getting wiped out if the villagers continue enticing birds with torch flames and then eating the flesh," said H.C. Khersa, a teacher at Jatinga.
Most of the 2,000 villagers at Jatinga are farmers growing citrus fruits, mainly oranges.

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