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The Birdman of India

The fall of a sparrow inspired a young boy to become one of the world's greatest ornithologists.

SALIM ALI'S has always been synonymous with birds. Born Salim Moizuddin Abdul Ali, it was this "Birdman of India" who transformed bird-watching and ornithology in the country dramatically.

Dr. Ali's love affair with birds began the day he used an airgun gifted to him by his uncle to shoot a sparrow that had a yellow streak below its neck. When his uncle, who didn't know what species of bird it was, he suggested to the10 year-old boy he visit The Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), it was a turning point in his young life. Awestruck by the amazing collection of stuffed birds in the Society, the young Salim decided right away to pursue ornithology when he grew up.

The hardships the budding bird lover faced early on in his career turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Upon failing to secure any job which was concerned with natural history in 1919, a dejected Salim and his wife Tehmina left for Burma, where they took charge of the family business of timber and mining. The wild forests of Burma proved to be a living lab for Ali.

Later on, Dr. Ali would recall: "My chief interest in bird study has always been its ecology, its life history under natural conditions and not in a laboratory under a microscope. By travelling to these remote, uninhabited places, I could study the birds as they lived and behaved in their habitats."

He left for Germany where he was trained under Prof. Stresemann, an acknowledged ornithologist, whom he respected greatly.

Living free.

Despite his studying at a prestigious foreign university, Dr. Ali failed to secure a job. It was then that an idea flashed in his mind. What if he were to study the avifauna in the princely states which had never before been explored? He offered to conduct regional ornithological surveys of these areas for the BNHS. He offered his services gratis provided the BNHS and the state authorities funded the camping and transport. The princely states were only too eager to have their birds recorded for posterity, and they readily agreed to this novel idea. And soon Dr. Ali was on the road to success despite the tough working conditions. The death of his wife in 1939 only spurred him to work harder in his pursuit. Post 1947, Dr. Ali took over the BNHS and managed to save the 200-year-old institution from closing down due to lack of funds, with the help of then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. His determination and zest for hard work won him accolades and admirers world over. The honours that came his way included the J. Paul Getty International Award, Golden Ark of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the Golden Medal of the British Ornithology Union (a rare achievement for non-British citizens), and the Padma Shree and Padma Vibhushan from the Indian Government. He also earned himself three honorary doctorates. To crown his achievements he was nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 1985. His timely intervention saved the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary and the Silent Valley National Park, besides the rediscovery of several rare species of birds.

Dr. Ali authored several books, popular among which is the Book of Indian Birds, a bible for budding ornithologists. Dr. Ali died in 1987 at the age of 91, after a prolonged battle with prostate cancer. His contributions, matchless as they are awe-inspiring, continue to captivate the minds of every new generation of bird lovers, ensuring that his legacy lives on.


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