Birdman

When Meena and I joined CEE, both with non-natural-history backgrounds, we were often told to refer to “the book”. The Book of Indian Birds was our first introduction to birds, and more interestingly, to the Birdman of India, Salim Ali. Over the years as we developed environmental education material, “the book” was one of our trusted references. Some years later when we edited a book on stories of inspiring wild-lifers, it was a given that we would open with a piece on Salim Ali.

Born on 12 November 1896, Salim Ali lost his parents when he was very young. He grew up in a large loving family with uncles, aunts, cousins, relatives and friends in Khetvadi, which is now part of the overcrowded area around Charni Road in Mumbai. None of the relatives were very interested in birds, except as part of tasty meal. Favourite among the cousins’ pastimes was going out with an airgun to shoot small birds in the countryside around which they lived. This was still an era when hunting and shooting were considered a ‘manly’ sport.

When Salim Ali was nine his uncle presented him with an airgun, which became his prized possession. He became quite an expert at using it, and loved to show off his prowess. When they could not go out, the cousins practised shooting at house sparrows. It was during one of these domestic hunting prowls that Salim, then nine years old, began to observe a female sparrow that was nesting in a hole in one of the stables. He also noted down his observations of how every time he shot the male sparrow that came to the nesting female, another one took its place. Primarily, this was to keep a record of how many male sparrows he felled, rather than a note on the behaviour of the birds. But the observations were so mature, and the notings so meticulous, that 60 years later they were reproduced in The Newsletter for Birdwatchers, more or less as originally written.

During the summer vacations the family moved to Chembur, which was at that time surrounded by forests rich in flora and fauna. One memory of those vacations that Salim carried with him all his life was that of the dawn song of the Magpie Robin that he heard while still tucked in bed.

As a schoolboy in the early 1900s Salim was an average student, but he enjoyed outdoor sport, of which his favourite was sport shooting of birds. He dreamed of becoming a great explorer and hunter, and his reading consisted mainly of books on natural history, hunting expeditions and travel.

It was another family vacation hunting incident that led him to a new dimension of birds; and ignited his first scientific interest in birds that was to grow and develop into a lifetime passion.

The 10-year-old Salim felled a sparrow.  Just as the bird was going to be turned into a tasty morsel, he noticed that it had an unusual yellow patch on the throat, almost like a “curry stain” as he remembers it. Intrigued, he carried the dead bird back to show his uncle—the shikari of the family. Uncle agreed that the bird was somewhat unusual and felt that it might be interesting to find out more about it.

Now this uncle was also one of the earliest Indian members of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). He asked Salim to take it to the BNHS along with a letter of introduction to Mr Millard who was its Honorary Secretary. The young boy Salim was very nervous about having to meet a foreigner face-to-face. He fumbled with the dead sparrow wrapped in a paper packet as he walked through the rooms of the BNHS with showcases displaying a fascinating collection of natural objects.

He found that Mr Millard was a gentle man who not only identified his specimen as a yellow-throated sparrow but also showed him similar stuffed specimens from his collection. He also gave him some books which Salim was to read again and again over the next sixty years.

This was Salim Ali’s first contact with the BHNS—an institution that was to play such an important part is shaping his life and his career. The incident with the yellow-throated sparrow opened up a whole new world. Salim decided that he wanted to know everything he could about birds. But as he later wrote “I contracted the germs of ornithology at a time when the disease was practically unknown among Indians, and nature conservation was a phrase only rarely heard”.

After doing a BSc in zoology, Salim looked for employment that could use his education as well as support his passion. But in those early years, there were no jobs to be had for an aspiring naturalist in India. Facing unemployment, Salim went to Burma to work in the family timber and mining business. On return he tried for a job in the Zoological Survey of India, but found that his educational qualifications were not adequate. The best he could get was the job of a guide in Bombay’s Prince of Wales Museum. With no further prospects, he went to Germany where he trained under Professor Stresemann, an acknowledged ornithologist, whom Salim Ali considered his guru. However on return, he was still looking for suitable employment.

It was then that he hit upon an idea. He offered to the BNHS that he would carry out ornithological surveys in what were then the numerous princely states. These regions were rich in avifauna, but largely unexplored and undiscovered, and many of the princely rulers were eager to have this recorded. Salim Ali offered his services for free provided his travel and camping expenses were met. This arrangement suited all the parties. And so for the next two decades Salim Ali roamed every corner of the subcontinent, studying and recording birds in the field. The conditions were tough, the terrain often remote and difficult, but it was a dream come true for the avid bird watcher. Salim Ali recalls these decades as the best years of his career.  

In those days there were hardly any illustrated books on Indian birds that would help with identifying birds as well as providing accurate information about bird behaviour. Throughout his travels Salim Ali spent hours in observation of birds and making detailed notes on his observations. Many years later, these acute observations and meticulous notes grew into The Book of Indian Birds that would remain the bible for Indian birdwatcher for decades to come.

Salim Ali the sparrow-hunter became India’s most widely respected Birdman. When asked about what it takes to be a birdwatcher, he explained that bird watching by nature was a most peaceful pursuit. But the excitement lay in searching out clues, and following them up, step by step, to prove or disprove one’s hunch. As he wrote “with the richness and variety of bird life in India, exciting discoveries are awaiting to be made by any birdwatcher who has the requisite enthusiasm and perseverance”.

Salim Ali was not only a great ornithologist. His life and work in natural history have inspired a whole generation of Indians towards environmental conservation—including us matriarchs. 

–Mamata

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