Each year, November 12 is celebrated as Birdwatchers’ Day in India, marking the birth anniversary of our bird man, Dr. Salim Ali. The date is a lot more special to me because it was on this very day in 2005, that my brother and I were bitten by the birding bug.
It was in 2012 that I happened to read Dr. Ali’s autobiography, The Fall of a Sparrow. I was sitting next to the lake in Lalbagh, Bangalore, on a calm morning with cormorants and pelicans in straight view – the perfect backdrop for this man’s illustrious life. Dr. Ali’s contribution to the study of natural history in India is so remarkable that even to this day when one hears the word ”ornithologist”, an image of that amiable, long-nosed face with a white beard and thick-framed spectacles pops up.
Like every other boy in his day, Dr. Ali’s journey into the natural world began with a gun – a toy air gun – with which he shot sparrows. On one such occasion, a bird that he killed looked a tad unique. It had a yellow patch on the throat. When Ali asked about this interesting creature at the Bombay Natural History Society, WS Millard, the secretary not only identified it as the Yellow-Throated Sparrow but also introduced a young Ali to the world of birds and ornithology. Millard showed him the stuffed specimens of the BNHS museum and lent him a copy of Edward Hamilton Aitkien’s The Common Birds of Bombay. The rest was history.
Ali made numerous path-breaking contributions to ornithology in India. While listing all of them would need a lot of space and time, his prominent achievements are the ones that are illustrated below. They include his efforts to secure financial aid for the BNHS from Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, his influential role in the creation of the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, and in preventing the destruction of the Silent Valley National Park. His writings are upheld as birding Bibles by every Indian birder, novice or veteran. These include his field guide, The Book of Indian Birds, and his magnum opus authored with Dillon Ripley, The Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan.
Ali succumbed to prostate cancer in 1987, at the age of 91, but left behind a spirited legacy. The Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON) was set up in his memory in Coimbatore, as was the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary in Goa. Several animals have been named after him, such as the Salim Ali’s fruit bat and sub-species of the rock bush quail, the Finn’s weaver and the black-rumped flameback. Bird lovers still fondly call the chestnut-shouldered petronia, the bird that inspired Ali’s switch from shooting to studying birds, the “Salim Ali Sparrow”.
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