Had it not been for Salim Ali, ornithologists in India would still be struggling to carry out systematic bird surveys in the country. His work on birds and bird-watching is counted as the Bible on the subject in India. One man alone was so passionate about birds that he devoted a lifetime to studying them. A very humble man, Salim Ali summed up his life in the autobiography aptly titled ‘Fall of a sparrow’.
Here are some interesting facts about the man and the interesting field of study that he undertook.
1. Bombay Natural History Society sparked Salim Ali’s interest in birds.
Salim Ali was ten when his uncle Amiruddin shot a bird. Unable to identify the bird species, a chance visit with his uncle to Bombay Natural History Society for identifying it got the young boy so excited that this new found interest stayed on for life.
2. Salim was orphaned at ten.
Having lost both his parents by the age of ten it was his maternal uncle who raised him. Lack of parental care and severe financial difficulties did not deter him from pursuing his love for birds.
3. Salim Ali held no university qualification.
He did go to college but to help out his brother in the family business in Burma, Salim Ali dropped out and never got to complete a college degree.
4. Business was not Salim Ali’s forte.
In Burma, he proved to be of no help in running the business and was mostly spotted watching birds. He was soon sent packing back to Mumbai. Back in his hometown, he started studying zoology and worked as a guide in the history section at the Prince of Wales Museum.
5. Renowned ornithologist Dr Irvin Strassman mentored Salim Ali.
His interest in birds drew him to Dr Irvin Strassman, a world famous ornithologist who lived in Germany. Leaving everything aside, Salim Ali studied birds under his able guidance for a year.
6. Loss of job gave Salim Ali ample time to indulge in birdwatching.
On returning from Germany, Salim Ali was forced to move to a house in Kihim that was owned by his wife as his position as the museum guide had been dissolved by then. At Kihim he spent loads of time watching birds as the place was rich in bird fauna.
7. A proposal to document birds in princely states was Salim Ali’s breakthrough.
Looking for a way to indulge in his passion, Bombay Natural History Society sponsored his proposal for recording birds in the princely states in exchange for transport and camping costs. The princely states were more than happy to have their rich bird populations documented. They readily agreed.
8. His first paper on weaver birds was published in 1930.
Relying on the groundbreaking observations made, Salim Ali’s first research paper turned him into a respected name in ornithology. He was never short of work after that and was mostly found traveling or documenting birds in different parts of the country.
9. A decade of hard work was compiled into ‘The Book of Indian Birds’ in 1941.
For the first time, such an exhaustive list of birds, their habitats and other traits had been compiled into a book. This book has served as a guide for bird lovers ever since it was first published.
10. The 10 volume set ‘Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan’ is Salim Ali’s magnum opus in collaboration with S. Dillon Ripley.
First published in 1948, this set is the most comprehensive collection of birds in the subcontinent. Anything you want to know about a species is there. Salim Ali collaborated with world-famous ornithologist S. Dillon Ripley to put together this ten volume set.
11. Salim donated award money to Bombay Natural History Society.
For his work, the famous ornithologist was honored with an international award. However, the humble man that he was, all the Rs 5 lakh award money was donated to the society that had spurred his bird watching passion.
12. Salim was conferred an honorary doctorate and many awards.
For his rare work, he was awarded a gold medal that is rarely given to Non-British citizens by the British Ornithology Union. A recipient of Padma Shree and Padma Vibhushna (1983), Salim Ali was also conferred two honorary doctorate degrees. In 1985 he was even nominated to the Rajya Sabha.
13. Salim Ali’s wife shared her husband’s passion for birds.
Much of the credit for his early success was because of his wife, who supported his passion, traveled with him to all those far out places, often in hostile terrains and made his camp as comfortable as possible. Remoteness and inaccessibility of a location was never a hurdle for our man with just a pair of binoculars. In 1939 his wife passed away and he overcame this grief by fully plunging into the world of birds.
In her, he had lost his friend, script editor, fellow bird enthusiast and inspiration.
14. At Salim Ali’s behest, Pandit Nehru saved BNHS.
Such was the power of this humble and dedicated birdwatcher that even the Prime Minister responded. At a time when Bombay Natural History Society was faced with financial problems, Salim Ali reached out to Nehru who ensured that the society was not shut down.
15. Salim Ali was a nature conservationist.
Had it not been for his timely intervention, we would have lost the Silent Valley National Park and the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary forever.
16. Discovery of Finn’s Bava, a rare species, is credited to him.
He had discovered the bird in the Kumaon Terrai.
17. His lifetime experiences in ‘The Fall of a Sparrow’, an autobiography, was published when he was 87.
The autobiography has become a highly acclaimed book that practically every bird lover has read.
18. Battling cancer, Dr Salim Ali, passed away in 1987 at the age of 91.
All his life he had maintained that he might have grown in the body, but he always had the beating heart of a nine year old, curious about the birds in his environment.
19. A Salim Ali bird count held in 22 states is a tribute to the great ornithologist.
Having created awareness about birds and their habitats, in the bird count across the country, birdwatchers are asked to upload bird find pictures on eBird website. In the last count, 514 birds were spotted, out of which 4 were supposedly endangered, namely the black-bellied tern, Egyptian vulture, great knot and steppe eagle.
This is a noble way to honor the man and his work.