How India’s Birdman Sálim Ali Showed Us the Interdependence of Life
From busting the myths about fireflies lighting up the homes of weaver birds to explaining the why and how of the spectacular bird migration phenomenon, there is perhaps no better than Sálim Ali, the most famous Indian ornithologist, to demystify the avian world. To the already formidable list of Ali’s works, comes another: a collection of his radio interviews. Edited by Tara Gandhi, Words for Birds (Black Kite), the book shows him doing what he does best – reaching out to a cross section of society about birds and the stellar role they do. play in the preservation of our environment.
“He was an excellent communicator. He gave a number of lectures and he communicated with people of different professions. For example, when speaking to mountaineers, he would say: “Since you are going up high, in places where ornithologists cannot go, watch out for nesting sites, bearded vultures, the large vultures high altitude. Look around and if you see any birds, let us know, take notes.” He was talking to people to get out of their own territory or specialization and into the bigger picture,” says Gandhi, who was mentored by Ali for her. MSc in Field Ornithology shortly before his death in 1987 at the age of 90.
He was, as she says, ahead of his time in understanding the importance of involving people in conservation. “You will come across one of his lectures where he tells his listeners that if you see any unusual birds by the sea, write to us. It struck me. Today, we talk about citizen science, involving lay people in scientific documentation. A number of birdwatchers are particularly involved in citizen science – doctors, teachers and people from many other disciplines make lists of birds and send them in to be compiled. A lot of important material emerges from the analysis of these data. At this time, almost 60 to 70 years ago, Sálim Ali was urging his readers and listeners to write to the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) to record the information.
Ali, who took over the BNHS after independence and remained there for decades, played a key role in keeping the organization going and initiating a systematic study of birds. “He had a vision well ahead of his time and very contemporary,” says Gandhi, who previously edited A Bird’s Eye View: The Collected Essays and Shorter Writings of Sálim Ali (II Volumes, Permanent Black, 2018) and is the author of Birds, Wild Animals and Agriculture: Conflict and Coexistence in India (The Orient Blackswan; 2015).
Delivered between 1941 and 1985, Ali’s talks were recorded mostly at All India Radio (AIR) station in Mumbai and range from one about trends in bird study to talking about bird life for a broadcast school, in a Hindustani conversation entitled Chand Hairat Angez Parandon aur Janwaron ke Ghar, addressed to children who did not speak English. In his autobiography, The Fall of a Sparrow (Oxford University Press, 1985), he recounts his days as a lecturer in the natural history section of the Prince of Wales Museum in Mumbai, where he remembers being particularly fond of “talking to students at School for the Blind, because of the strong interest they have shown. Gandhi says, “He made an effort to reach out to children to make them better understand birds and nature in a simple way.”
After his time at the Museum, Ali spent a year in Germany, training with Erwin Stresemann at the Zoological Museum of the University of Berlin, returning to India in 1930 and embarking on a series of bird surveys across the country. Beginning at a time when ornithology, in his own words, was the “Cinderella of Indian zoology”, Ali can be credited with bringing the discipline out of museums and collections and into the natural habitat and broaden its scope. “The kind of projects he took on later on from the 1960s were hugely important and absolutely pragmatic. He took on a project on birds in aviation, i.e. bird strike in aviation. It was a huge project and it was entirely to save human lives, to avoid huge losses. The study tried to find methods to avoid bird strikes on planes – by observing the time of day, the path of the birds, the species involved and how to prevent them from congregating at airports. Previously, his investigations focused on collections become a precious and permanent resource, but later he completely moved away from the idea of just collecting specimens when he became the head of the BNHS,” says Gandhi.
But be doubled The Birdman of India sometimes overshadowed its role as an environmental defender. “He repeated several times that everything is linked in nature. It’s not just the birds themselves, it’s the habitat of the birds and the various ecosystems in India that he wanted to conserve for the sake of all the flora and fauna they contain. He spoke about the conservation of endangered species and regretted that so many species had disappeared. Ali was instrumental in the creation of a number of national parks and protected areas. Using his communication skills, he was even able to persuade royal families to set aside their game reserves to conserve the species that were there,” says Gandhi.