The Bali “X” Files
A bizarre and macabre incident occurred on the morning of Thursday, 09 September 2021, at the traditional village cemetery in the Village of Pering, Blahbatuh, in the Gianyar Regency of Bali.
Burung Pipit, small finches are also known locally as “burung emprit,” suffered a mass die-off with a death toll estimated in the thousands resulting in heaps of carcasses scattered around the base of twin tamarind trees (pohon asem kembar) in the Bali cemetery.
The Burung Pipit (Lonchura leucogastroides) or emprit is sometimes incorrectly identified as burung gereja or the common church sparrow. The group of Burung Pipit that perished en masse in Gianyar have rounded bodies measuring only 8-10 centimeters in length. Their upper body feathering is brown with the head and upper breast areas black. The side breast and other parts of the bird’s body are white.
Living in large flocks the birds feed almost exclusively on seeds and are blamed by rice farmers for decimating their crops. The Pipit is a member of the Estrildidae family while its ornithological cousin, the slightly larger (10-12 centimeters) sparrow is of the Passeridae clan that also feeds on seeds and rice kernels supplemented by a diet of small insects
The deaths of the birds happened during a sudden cloudburst. As reported by NusaBali.com, the local chief of Banjar Sema in the Village of Pering, I Wayan Ari Partama, confirmed the many thousand birds died during the heavy rainfall. Some of the birds that fell to the ground died instantly, while others struggled and managed to become airborne and fly from the scene.
Some blame the mass die-off on the small leaves of the twin tamarind trees that failed to provide adequate cover for the finches sheltering from the rain in the trees. “With the heavy rains fell, it drenched the birds’ feathers to such a degree that they could no longer fly, causing them to fall from the high branches of the tree to the ground,” said Ari Pratama.
However, some local Balinese ascribe a more mystical explanation to the bird’s deaths, seeing great significance in the fact that the event occurred in a graveyard and that a similar event killed a large number of birds around six months earlier. “That event was precisely the same. After heavy rainfall, thousands of sparrows dropped dead and fell into the graveyard. The tamarind tree becomes home to these birds after they feed at the rice fields of local farmers,” explained Pratama.
Another explanation from Bali’s science community, apparently not completely accepted by Ari Pratama, is that the birds died after possibly ingesting a highly toxic locally-concocted blend of insecticide sprayed on the mature rice crops by village farmers. Denying the birds were poisoned, Pratama said: “There was no poisoning; the drenching of the birds caused the deaths during heavy rains. This needs to be emphasized to avoid any misunderstanding. The burung pipit have long chosen to make their home in the twin tamarind trees.”
Another resident of the traditional Village of Sema, I Nyoman Watra, said the sparrows usually roost after sunset in the cemetery’s tamarind trees. Watra said the birds nest in the tree once every three years, confessing he had no explanation why the birds only use the trees periodically and not continuously. Adding: “In the past, when the village conducted a mass cremation ceremony at the cemetery, a similar phenomenon (of many birds dying) took place. At that time, thousands of birds flew into the cemetery.”
Watra theorized that the birds heavily drenched feathers made it impossible for them to fly, causing the finches to tumble from the tree to the ground and die. “The number of birds that fell and died numbered in the thousands. There were many dead bird carcasses scatted around the cemetery’s grounds. Because the twin tamarind trees in the cemetery are considered sacred, residents were not brave to poke around and disturb the dead birds,” he said.
An official from the Agriculture and Animal Husbandry Service for the Regency of Gianyar collected samples of the dead birds’ carcasses from beneath the sacred tamarind trees for examination in the Denpasar laboratory of the Bali Provincial Conservation Board for Natural Resources (BKSDA). The findings of the laboratory are expected to be available in one week.
By late Friday afternoon, the thousands of dead finches were gathered and buried in a mass grave within the cemetery’s grounds by STT Putra Casana – a youth organization from the Village of Sema. A religious elder (pamangku) from the village presided over a ritualized sacred prayer ceremony.