Bird Watching




An old Snoopy man with hawk eyes behind black-framed spectacles and without wings learned how to fly with birds and discovered the maximum number of species during his journey.  Salim Ali had flown in all directions for his love towards birds. He spent half of his life in bird watching. 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 “BIRDMAN OF INDIA”.

Born as Salim Moizuddin Abdul Ali in Bombay on 12 November 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 W.S Millard, The Secretary of Bombay Natural History Society.  Mr. Millard was amazed by the curiosity of young Ali and gave him  a round to show the collection of stuffed birds.  This single incident changed  Dr. Salim Ali’s life and made him world’s best bird watcher and legendary ornithologist.
Dr. Salim Ali left Bombay in 1919,  due to no jobs available 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 on the criteria of eligibility as he didn't have an MSc or Ph.D.  He was sure about making his career in ornithology.  He went to Berlin to study where he trained under Professor Stresemann, renounced ornithologist, whom Sálim Ali considered his guru.

Despite having a high qualification from a foreign University,  Dr. Salim failed to find a job.  He never let down his dreams.   Dr. Salim Ali offered his services at Bombay natural history society which was conducting a regional ornithological survey. Working in tough conditions, he made his way.   After  independence from the British, he took over  charge of Bombay natural history society and successfully managed to save the society which was under financial crunches.  The government of India helped the Dr. Salim Ali to save the hundred year old prestigious institution the Bombay Natural History Society.

Ali’s contribution in the  field of ornithology is unmatched and his books on birds were the result of a marvelous amount of field work that has set new standards in ornithology.  He upgraded  bird watching as the science of systematic perservation. His interest mostly lay in the ecology of birds which is the study of habits, habitat, food, and breeding of the 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 Bombay Natural History Society, he had worked on various important researches and studies on ecology. Bharatpur bird sanctuary was alive because of Dr. Salim Ali’s  continuous intervention.  He fought hard to save the wildlife and nature of Silent Valle, the Virgin Tropical Forest in Kerala where the Government planned to construct a hydroelectric Project.  Ali’s research on the habitat of weaver birds was appreciated by world 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 honored with a doctorate from the Aligarh Muslim University, Delhi University, and Andhra University.  He was the first Indian and first non-British to receive the Gold Medal from the British Ornithology Union in 1967, the same year he received J.Paul Wildlife Conversation Prize.  In 1969, he was honored by the John Philips Memorial Award by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources and in 1973,  by the Golden Ark from the Netherlands Prince Bernhard for his an excellent contribution to nature conservation.  Dr. Salim Ali was honored by the Government of India with Padma Bhushan(1958), Padma Vibhushan (1976) and also nominated for the Rajya Sabha (1985).

To follow his passion and love for birds he traveled widely in 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. That moment is like  looking at a beautiful woman and you just enjoyed it”.   Nothing could stop him-bad weather or jagged terrain - he covered  every single corner of India.  Ali’s thirst for birds was never satisfied.  An old Snoopy man was always full of never ending energy.  The person of his age looks for peace and a quiet place to spend the rest of his life but Ali was like a great albatross who was flying at a great height, looking at each bird and enjoying the voice of the birds, a great music he never tired of hearing.

There is no match for him.  In many ways, Ali is in competition with himself.  No person so far,  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 binocular in neck and diary in hand,  Ali’s hawk eyes were always looking for birds.  Nothing would stop Ali from flying, even his prostate cancer.  At the age of 90 years, on 20 June 1987, he finally flew away with the yellow throat sparrow which he shot at the age of 10 years.   20th June 2017 will be his 30th death anniversary.
Dr. Salim’s contribution is matchless today.  His books and love for birds are inspiring the new generation.  Ali legacy lives forever.


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