An old, snoopy man, with hawk-like eyes behind black-framed spectacles, having no wings of his own, learned how to fly with birds and discovered a number of species during his journey. Salim Ali had flown in all directions for his love for birds. He spent half his life in bird watching and ornithology. Ali’s vision towards the field of ornithology is unmatched in India. His contribution and discovery have transformed the field of ornithology in India. His great vision and love for birds gave him the title of the ‘Birdman of India’.
Born as Salim Moizuddin Abdul Ali in Bombay on November 12, 1896, he was the youngest of nine children. The ten-year-old boy had developed an immense love for birds after he had shot the yellow throat sparrow. His uncle Abbas Tyabji introduced him to WS Millard, the secretary of the Bombay Natural History Society. Mr Millard was amazed by the curiosity of the young Ali and took him around to show the collection of stuffed birds. This single incident changed Dr Salim Ali’s life and made him one of the world’s best bird watchers and a legendary ornithologist.
Dr Salim Ali left Bombay in 1919, due to there being no jobs in natural history. He went to Burma, where he managed his family business. After seven years, he returned to complete his studies and he applied for the post of ornithologist at the Zoological Survey of India, but was rejected due to the eligibility criteria, as he didn’t have an MSc or a PhD. He was sure about making his career in ornithology. He went to Berlin to study, where he trained under Professor Stresemann, renowned ornithologist, whom Salim Ali considered his guru.
Despite having a high qualification from a foreign university, Dr Salim Ali failed to find a job. He never let go of his dreams. Dr Salim Ali offered his services at the Bombay Natural History Society which was conducting a regional ornithological survey. He made his way through tough working conditions.
After independence from the British, he took over the charge of the Bombay Natural History Society and successfully managed to save it from financial crunches. The government of India helped Dr Salim Ali to save the 100-year-old prestigious institution – the Bombay Natural History Society.
Ali’s contribution in the field of ornithology is unmatchable and his books on birds were a result of a marvellous amount of field work that has set new standards in ornithology. He upheld bird watching as the science of systematic perseverance. His interest mostly lied in the ecology of birds, which is the study of habits, habitat, food, and the breeding of birds.
Dr Salim Ali was the first person to introduce systematical ornithology survey at that time when nobody was aware of the distribution pattern of birds in India. During his career in the Bombay Natural History Society, he worked on various important researches and studies on ecology. Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary is alive because of Dr Salim Ali’s continuous intervention. He fought hard to save the Silent Valley National Park in Kerala, where the government planned to construct a hydroelectric project. Ali’s research on the habitat of weaver birds was appreciated by the world’s ornithologists.
Dr Salim Ali penned down many books which reflected his achievements in the field of ornithology: “The Books of Indian Birds”, “Birds of Kerala” and his autobiography “The Fall of the Sparrow”. Ali was honoured with a doctorate from Aligarh Muslim University, Delhi University, and Andhra University. He was the first Indian and first non-British person to receive a gold medal from the British Ornithology Union in 1967, the same year he received the J. Paul Wildlife Conservation Prize. In 1969, he was honoured with the John Philips Memorial Award by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources and in 1973, with the Golden Ark from Netherlands’ Prince Bernhard for his excellent contribution to nature conservation. Dr Salim Ali was honoured by the Government of India with the Padma Bhushan (1958), the Padma Vibhushan (1976), and he was also nominated to the Rajya Sabha (1985).
To follow his passion and love for birds, he travelled a lot across the world. In his autobiography, “The Fall of the Sparrow”, he said, “When you are concentrating on the birds, you forget most of the things.” Nothing could stop him. Neither bad weather nor jagged terrains. He covered every single corner of India. Ali’s thirst for birds was never satisfied. The old man was always full of never ending energy. A person of his age looks for peace and a quiet place to spend the rest of his life, but Ali was a great albatross who was flying at a great height, looking at each bird and enjoying the voice of the birds.
There is no match for him. In many ways, Ali was in competition with himself. No person yet has contributed as much as Ali did during his life towards the conservation of wildlife in India. It is not easy to define the personality of Dr Ali. With a pair of binoculars around his neck and a diary in his hand, Ali’s hawk-like eyes were always looking for birds. Nothing could stop Ali from flying, not even his prostate cancer. On June 20, 1987, at the age of 90 years, he finally flew away with the yellow throat sparrow he had shot at the age of ten. It will be his 30th death anniversary.
Dr Salim’s contribution is matchless today. His books and love for birds are inspiring a new generation. Ali’s legacy lives forever.