12th November 1896: Salim Ali, Indian ornithologist and naturalist, was born

Ornithologist and naturalist Salim Moizuddin Abdul Ali, known as the “birdman of India’, was born on November 12, 1896, to a Sulaimani Bohra Muslim family in Bombay. Ali’s parents died before he turned four. He and his brothers and sisters were then brought up by an uncle and aunt.

W.S. Millard, the then secretary of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), introduced the young Ali to the serious study of birds. Millard identified a coloured sparrow that Ali had shot with his toy gun, as a Yellow-throated Sparrow. Millard also showed him the BNHS’s collection of stuffed birds and provided other valuable help and encouragement. 

This incident of the Yellow-throated Sparrow was the spark that eventually made Ali take up ornithology as a career, not a common choice in the India of that era. He also started maintaining a diary at a young age, and made interesting and quirky observations on birds.

After completing his school education he spent a year in college in Bombay and then went to Burma to look after mining and other family businesses there. In his seven years at Burma he would spend time in the forests, learning about wildlife and birds, and hunting.  

Remembering his Burma days, in an interview conducted in 1982 by H.S.A. Yahya, the then Reader, Centre for Wildlife And Ornithology, Aligarh Muslim University, Ali said: “[I] was deeply interested in birds and that is why I took the opportunity in Burma where the mining business was all in thick forest and in forested country. That part of the country where I was, the Tenasserim, was particularly good for birds. The forests were situated in a place from where transport was most difficult because there were no roads and no paths or any other facility of that sort.”

After returning to India he joined Davar’s College of Commerce to study law and accountancy but also started taking evening classes in zoology at St. Xavier’s College. In 1918 he was married to Tehmina, a distant relative.

Speaking about the role she played in his career, Ali said in the 1982 interview that it was his “great fortune” that he married Tehmina “who had had all her education in England and been used to quite a different sort of life to what she would have in the kind of work I wished to do”. But, she insisted, “that I should take up only the work that I was interested to do”.

Ali, who was shattered when she died at a young age in 1939 after a minor surgery, added: “Now when I look back, I think the chief…[factor] that made me continue with ornithology was my wife, because you really cannot do much if you do not have a like-minded companion.”

Ali became a guide lecturer in 1926 at the natural history section of Mumbai’s Prince of Wales Museum, a post he held for two years before taking a study leave to Germany. Here he met prominent ornithologists such as Bernhard Rensch and Oskar Heinroth and got first-hand experience in bird ringing.

After returning to India, Ali and Tehmina moved to the coastal village of Kihim near Bombay. Here, among other detailed observations, he examined the breeding and mating patterns of the Baya Weaver. Later, he conducted bird surveys in princely states such as Hyderabad and Cochin.

Ali was more interested in studying birds in the field than finer details of systematics and taxonomy. As he wrote in a letter in 1956: “My head reels at all these nomenclatural metaphysics! I feel strongly like retiring from ornithology, if this is the stuff, and spending the rest of my days in the peace of the wilderness with birds, and away from the dust and frenzy of taxonomical warfare.”  

Ali was an influential figure in Indian wildlife conservation and environmentalist circles in the post-Independence era. Both prime ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi supported his work. Ali’s appeal to Nehru for funds to ensure the survival of the BHNS proved fruitful. Ali, who died in 1987 after suffering from cancer, once described his lifelong love for birds as “essentially aesthetic and scientific, and in some cases . . . even . . . pragmatic”.

Remembering Ali after his death, environmental activist and writer Bittu Sahgal wrote: [H]is life was spent exploring the wonder and utter usefulness of nature without once becoming emotionally attached to the ‘sanctity of life’ concept that so many people still confuse with conservation.” In a tribute to Salim Ali, ecologist Madhav Gadgil wrote in November 1996 in Current Science: [Ali] will be remembered as the man who taught Indians to appreciate, to study at first hand, to treasure, to work towards conserving the rich living heritage of the country.”

Also on this day:

1879 — Sachivottama Sir C.P.R. Iyer, lawyer, administrator, politician and Advocate-General of Madras Presidency, was born  

1938 — Jitendra Prasad, Congress leader and political advisor to prime minister, was born  

1940 — Amjad Khan, Hindi film actor, was born 

1946 — Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, Indian educationist and Independence activist, passed away  

2007 — Khanmohammad Ibrahim, Indian Test cricketer, passed away

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