Dr. Salim Ali : Bird Man of India

People say you cannot make a living from bird watching. That is perhaps true, but, it is also true that man does not live by bread alone. Just look at the people who have no such hobbies and spend all their time solely on earning a living. After 60, when they retire from official chair, they don’t know what to do with all their time in their hands, and just spend it watching the clock! If they had cultivated a hobby like bird watching, perhaps they would have lived longer to enjoy their pension”.

Salim Ali
On a billboard outside Ranganthittu Bird Sanctuary, Karnataka.

Salim Ali is the pioneer and outlier, in Ornithological studies in India. His extensive field work, surveys and observations therein have provided the world with invaluable information about the Indian Wildlife landscape and the knowledge and habitat of birds in the Indian Subcontinent.

He was born in 1896 in Bombay, and lost both his parents by the age of 3. Raised by his maternal Uncle Amiruddin Tyabji and aunt Hamida Begum.

At an early age, he was fascinated by books on shikar – hunting, and was encouraged by his uncle to pursue some sport hunting, through an expensive air gun known as a “Daisy Gun”, gifted to him. There were lots of bird around Bombay at the time, and it was during this period that he discovered a Sparrow-like bird which he had shot, which Salim noted had a distinct yellow patch on its throat.

Curious to know what it was, he brought it to his uncle, who directed Salim to Mr.W.S. Millard – the Honorary Secretary of the Bombay Natural History Society(BNHS). Millard proceeded to show him more specimens of birds collected by the BNHS and enlightened him about the kind of variety there was, even amongst sparrows.

The bird he had caught, was the Yellow-throated Sparrow or the Chestnut Shouldered Petronia.

This event left indelible dent in the mind of Salim Ali – who began visiting the BNHS quite frequently thereafter to update his knowledge. The rest is history.

Education :

After failed attempts at pursuing a more mainstream career in the family business and studying Commercial Law and Accountancy, Salim finally completed a degree in Zoology – realising that his interest lay here professionally.

The degree wasn’t ever offered in the country, hence he had to look abroad for the opportunity!

Through his education, he was given the opportunity to travel overseas to Germany to work under eminent Ornithologists such as Dr.Irvin Strassman at the Berlin Zoological Museum.

Early Career :

With limited opportunities as an ornithologist in India, Salim Ali often faced unemployment.

He was doing this while working part-time as a guide at the Museum of Natural History(Prince of Wales Museum) in Bombay, showing people around and explaining to them the different facts of the preserved birds kept at the museum. It was a position he lost when he returned to India from Germany.

He decided to take up a job as a clerk at the museum instead, while making observations in the field all the while. His main area of interest was the behaviour of birds within the habitat in which they lived.

Despite modest financial conditions, he aimed at finding time in the field doing what he loved –

His first notable document in 1930 was the on the Baya Weaver’s polygamous mating behaviour which generated a lot of momentum for him in the Ornithological world – a field yet unexplored by an India.

It propelled him to write to several State Governments to fund extensive field work on birds in different areas of India, his passion and endeavour took him a long way in this regard as he was often granted these funds in the states of Hyderabad, Cochin, Travancore Bhopal, Indore and Gwalior.

Book of Indian Birds :

For 10 years he travelled doing extensive surveys across India, with his wife Tehmina Begum, who tragically passed away in 1939.

Salim Ali knew about almost every corner of the country, creating records of habitat, altitudes, distribution, identification, behaviour and even sampling of the birds for further taxonomical study as was required at the time.

In 1941, he published the “Book of Indian Birds” which is his piece de resistance, and till today is the most well known pictorial field guide on identifying birds in India.

Contributions:

  • Pioneered detailed ornithological bird surveys in India.
  • Obtained Support to establish Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary/Keoladeo – Ghana Wildlife Sanctuary : now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • Rediscovered the Finn’s Weaver in the Kumaon Region of Himachal Pradesh, in 1950.
  • Recorded continuous presence of White-naped Tit in Mysore State, known otherwise only from Gujarat and Rajasthan.
  • Recording of the Pin-striped Tit Babbler in the bamboo clad areas on the banks of the River Kabini, Karnataka. a far-cry from its distribution in the evergreen forests of South-east Asia, North-east India, Terai and Eastern Ghats.
  • Discovery of a new race of Rock Bush Quail, whose plumage uniquely matched that of the red laterite soil in Central Karnataka.
  • Preventing the destruction of Silent Valley National Park, Kerala, from Hydroelectric Projects.
  • Instrumental in gathering governmental funds for multiple Ornithological surveys and projects.
  • Proposed to the Indian Government to declare the Great Indian Bustard as India’s National Bird in

Notable Accolades:

  • Dr.Salim Ali ultimately was appointed the head of the BNHS, and saved the then 100 year old institution from going under, through written appeals to the First Prime Minister of India : Mr.Jawaharlal Nehru.
  • First non-Britisher to win the Gold Medal from the British Ornithologists Union.
  • J.Paul Getty International Prize for Nature Conservation 1976, which included a cash prize of USD 50,000/- given right off the cuff to the BNHS by Dr.Salim Ali!
  • 03 Honorary Doctorates from the Indian Government
  • Padma Bhushan – 1958 : The 3rd Highest Civilian Award in India
  • Padma Vibhuhan – 1976  The 2nd Highest Civilian Award in India
  • Nominated to the Rajya Sabha(India’s Upper House of Parliament) – 1985.

Books by Dr.Salim Ali:

  • Book of Indian Birds – 1940
  • Birds of Kutch – 1945
  • Indian Hill Birds – 1949
  • Birds of Travancore and Cochin  – 1953
  • Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan with co-author Dillon Ripley, covering his work in 10 volumes from his observations in the field from 1968 – 1974.

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