Birdman of India
Dr Salim Ali
DR Salim Moizuddin Abdul Ali or Dr. Salim Ali is synonymous with birds. The famous ornithologist-naturalist was born on November 12, 1896 in Mumbai. He is also known as the ‘Birdman of India’. He pioneered a systematic survey on birds in India. His research work has shaped the course of ornithology in India to a great extent.
A great visionary, he made birds a serious pursuit when it used to be a mere fun for many. Orphaned at a very young age, Salim Ali was brought up by his maternal uncle, Amiruddin Tyabji who introduced him to nature.
As a 10 year-old, Salim once noticed a flying bird and shot it down. Tender at heart, he instantly ran and picked it up. It appeared like a house sparrow, but had a strange yellowish shade on the throat. Curious, he showed the sparrow to his uncle and wanted to know more about the bird. Unable to answer, his uncle took him to WS Millard, the Honorary Secretary of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). Amazed at the unusual interest of the young boy, Millard took him to see many stuffed birds. When Salim finally saw a bird similar to the child’s bird, he got very excited. After that, the young Salim started visiting the place frequently.
Ali failed to get an ornithologist’s position at the Zoological Survey of India due to lack of a proper university degree (He was a college dropout). He, however, decided to study further after he was hired as guide lecturer in 1926 at the newly opened natural history section in the Prince of Wales Museum in Mumbai. He went on study leave in 1928 to Germany, where he was trained under Professor Erwin Stresemann at the Zoological Museum of Berlin University. On his return to India in 1930, he discovered that the guide lecture position had been eliminated due to lack of funds. Unable to find a suitable job, Salim Ali and his wife Tehmina moved to Kihim, a coastal village near Mumbai, where he began making his first observations of the Baya or the Weaver Bird. The publication of his findings on the bird in 1930 brought him recognition in the field of ornithology.
Salim Ali was very influential in ensuring the survival of the BNHS and managed to save the 200-year old institution by writing to the then Prime Minister Pandit Nehru for financial help.
Dr Ali’s influence helped save the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary and the Silent Valley National Park. In 1990, the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON) was established at Anaikatty, Coimbatore, aided by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), Government of India. He was honoured with a Padma Vibhushan in 1983. He died at the age of 90, on June 20, 1987.