Hall of scientific fame of India stands patently graced by the likes of  J C Bose,  PC Roy ,CV Raman, Virbal Sahini, Meghanath saha, Homi Baba and of course the redoubtable Vikram Sarabahi and unfortunately inconspicuous even by absence is the emaciated mug shot of the humble soul Dr Salim Ali. He still remains unsung among his compatriots  .But a much known British expatriate scientist in India J P S Loudan had realized DrSalim Ali phenomenon way back in 1861 itself .Haldaine wrote to Salim Ali in the immediate wake of his receiving a prestigious award from Italy  which carried a sum of one and half lakhs that it was easy for DR Ali to become a biological scientists whereas in his case the same easiness would have been for not turning into one if his fathers experience was anything to take cue from .

When the aborigine hunter shot into a bird and killed it he was overwhelmed by an uncharacteristic feel of nagging sorrow but it proved fleeting. For as soon as the man wove his sorrow into mellifluous poetry he grew forgetful of the bird’s plight and became an ambitious and careerist poet whose only concern was to fine-tune his craft on end so testifies the epic Ramayana.

When Salim Ali’s Air gun killed a bizarre hued little bird whose neck sported a nuptial chain like elaborate ring mark around itself the carcass confused the ten year old and put him in a serious dilemma. He the youngest of nine siblings whose parents had died already wanted to roast the bird meat to feed the legion of hungry mouths in his ward .But could a pious Muslim have the leave of his religion to do so he ruminated .He took up the matter with his uncle who sent him to Bombay Natural History Society where its secretary Walter Samuel Millard made him watch  the sight and behavior of birds which thrived in the elaborate society aviary .The English man also drew the attention of the little boy  to some of the bird literature which the society was in possession of .It was a baptism by aviary for the legendary ornithologist .This incident took place in 1908 and it was the birth of a passion and its lifespan lasted till the birder’s death on 20th June 1987 at age of 91.

Salim was born in to  a family migrated from sindth and settled in Gujarat and he was the youngest of nine children. He was not good at studies and failed to earn a degree in biology from the college. He tried his hand at trading and mining in Burma but returned to India soon and took up a job in Prince of Wales museum run by Bombay natural history society as guide-lecturer in 1926. He underwent a strict nine month training stint in 1929 under professor Eriwim in the biological museum of the University of Berlin. On his return to India in 1939 he could learn that he had lost his job at the society as a result of some austerity measures which had been put in place. His search for a remunerative job drew a blank and so he informed the society that he was ready for an unpaid bird study work in the princely states. The first to take the bait was the State of Hyderabad. It handed over Rs 3000 to Bombay Natural History Society for a field work of three months. Dr. Ali had penned a number of books on bird studies and the most known of which is the one brought out in 1941 titled The Book of Indian Birds. Subsequently the book was revised with the help of Dillon Dephry of Smith Zonian institute of the US and he retitled it as birds of India and Pakistan. It turned out to be one containing 10 doorstopper volumes which dealt with the life and behavior of a veritable more than 1200 different birds. Even now the book enjoys an unassailable authority in the compendium of world ornithological bibliography. This magnum opus of the winged was brought out between 1960-1974. By Alis’s own admission the book that gave him utmost satisfaction was The Bird of Kerala. He conducted the field study for this book between 1930-1950. In hindsight he had gone on record that these years were the most satiating period of his life as a practicing biological scientist. He wrote his series of articles about the initial part of his study in the magazine of Bombay Natural History Society which became an instant hit even among the lay reading public. Ali, his wife and a servant stayed in Travancore and Cochin for 5 months to conduct the field study. The heavily under funded study (a virtual pittance of 4000 rupees) turned his stay in Kerala multiple travails ridden. He had to travel by bus, sleep in rent free government buildings, eat any food that he came by, and purchase gun powder on loan and what not of items in the book of hassles. Alis’s Kerala assignment was surprisingly one that the society made profit out of since the birder ran an expense of just 2000 rupees, half of his total allocation. The society compiled all his articles published in the society journal between 1937-1939 in to a book christened The Birds of Travancore and Cochin. The book was brought out by the Oxford university press with the financial aid made available by the Diwan of Travancore C P Ramaswamy Iyer.

When Salim Ali made his first foray into his ornithological pursuit the practioners of the science mainly dealt with dead birds. The art of stuffed bird making had caught people’s imagination and they put in their everything to excel in the art. They would kill birds and remove their feathery skin completely undamaged and would stuff these bird bags till they came to assume their pristine live” appearance. They set up large museums where these exhibits would be classified by professional ornithological scientists putting all their skill set to the most ‘rewarding use’. They had little use of them elsewhere. But Ali made a clean departure from bird necrophilia which the bird watching fraternity of the period had made an art and science out of. He loved live birds and tried to study them with abiding passion. Ecology and biogeography of birds where his areas of study. His interest in bird habitat studies by his later day admission was a legacy from his German ornithological gurus. Post independence India saw massive felling of trees and mindless killing of wild life and Ali on behalf of Bombay Natural History Society and very much on his personal behalf too took umbrage at this development and swung himself to action to keep it in check exhausting all the clout he could draw upon. He won the most prestigious global prize for environmental protection known as Palgetting “wild life protection prize” which carried a cash component of 50000$. Nehru and Indira Gandhi went under the spell of his personal camaraderie and turned echo protection fiends. Silent Valley got a fresh lease of life extricating itself from an imminent apocalypse at the hands of the powerful development lobby due to DrSalim Ali’s level of influence over Indira Gandhi. Ali was of opinion that Kerala was the foremost bird land in the entire country in that its biodiversity in terms of its bird population was unparallel. In his autobiography The fall of a sparrow he has made a special reference to Thattekad bird sanctuary and declares in all conviction that it is a veritable bird paradise. In the same book he rues the destiny of parambikulam wild life sanctuary where due to the construction of a dam and introduction of monoculture vast swathes of prime forest land went under water and the remaining put to axe and those rehabilitated was only with the perilous practice of  planting single variety trees like eucalyptus and rubber.

Ali’s most valuable contribution to ornithology was his extensive and close studies in to the married life of the Baya weaver birds. The field study for this was sited at Kihim in the immediate vicinity of Bombay. He perched himself atop a ladder kept leaned on a tree which sported a vast colony of nests of the weaver birds. He hid himself behind a canvas curtain hung in front of the ladder and made an intense observation of the birds at close quarters. The ordeal took weeks together and he wrote a steady series of articles and took photographs and published them along with his articles with equal regularity. The serial went on to become a great publishing event and it took Ali to the pinnacle of his birding and writing career. The polygamous relationship management skills of the puny weaver bird male as described by Ali in his said article gives us a taste of his writing. “His acquisition of wives will run to four and at times a fulsome five and he accomplishes this feat if he is able to manage a dwelling for them severally. But he won’t acquire his entire harem enblock. He is for incremental acquisition practice. Nest building is the sole responsibility of the male and the women folk will never chip in at any stage of this long and laborious task. The initial task of nest building is to find out a Babool or Palm tree to hang the nest from. If the same tree or an adjoining few happen to be the find of a folk of he birds the place will witness the eruption of a weaver bird colony. When the nest smithing is half way through the colony receives a bevy of visiting bird beauties one fine morning. They have come to make a close and unsparing inspection of each nest by turn. As this assessment and accreditation survey is underway male folk will fly around the nests uttering welcome notes. This is meant to elicit a favorable verdict on extra architectural consideration too. If a beauty gets really impressed with a particular nest she will make a quick entry in to it and close behind will enter the triumphant male. Loosing no time they will indulge in a hectic love making act and it will clinch their matrimony. Now the man bird sets about completing the work of the nest by adding a long pipe like entry corridor to the nest. Once ensconced in the safety of a fully built nest the bird woman will lay eggs and subsequently hatch them. By that time father bird must have lost interest in his incumbent wife and children and he will rarely join her to feed their young ones.

Now it is time for him to build yet another nest close by and try his luck with yet another visiting bevy. But some women birds are given to waywardness and insensitivity and will steer themselves clear of some select half built nests invariably all the time. This practical joke is at the expense of the hapless lot of some star crossed men folk. But their tenacity and optimism rarely leave them. They will abandon their half build nests and set about erecting new ones”.

An assortment of prestigious awards and honors like Pathma Bushan, Pathma Vibhooshan, conferment of umpteen honorary doctorates and nomination to rajyasabha came his way. The bird man died childless.