Salim Ali, one of the greatest ornithologists and naturalists of all time, is also known as the “birdman of India”. He was one of the very first scientists to carry out systematic bird surveys in India and abroad. His research work is considered highly influential in the development of ornithology.
Early Life: 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 Amiruddin and questioned him about the bird’s kind. Unable to answer, his uncle took him to W.S. Millard, the Honorary Secretary of the Bomaby Natural History Society. 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.
Salim Moizuddin Abdul Ali was born on November 12, 1896. He attended college, but did not receive any university degree. To assist his brother in wolfram mining, he went to Burma, but spent most of his time looking for birds. Soon, he returned back to Bombay.
Contributions and Achievements: As soon as Salim returned, he studied zoology, and secured a position of a guide at the museum of the Bombay Natural History Society. Only 20 years old, he conducted the visitors and instructed them about the preserved birds. His interest in the living conditions of birds grew even more. Therefore, Salim visited Germany and saw Dr. Irvin Strassman. He came back to India after one year but his post in the museum had been removed for financial reasons.
Salim Ali, as a married man, required money to make a living, so he joined the museum as a clerk. The job allowed him to carry on with his research. His wife’s house at Kihim, a small village near Mumbai, was a tranquil place surrounded by trees, where Salim would spend most of his time researching about the activities of the weaver bird.
He published a research paper discussing the nature and activities of the weaver bird in 1930. The piece made him famous and established his name in the field of ornithology. Salim also traveled from place to place to find out more about different species of the birds.
From what he had collected, he published “The Book of Indian Birds in 1941” in which he discussed the kinds and habits of Indian birds. The book sold very well for a number of years. He also collaborated with S. Dillon Ripley, a world-famous ornithologist, in 1948. The collaboration resulted in the ‘Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan’ (10 Volume Set); a comprehensive book that describes the birds of the subcontinent, their appearance, habitat, breeding habits, migration etc. Salim also published other books. His work “The Fall of Sparrow” included many incidents from his real life.
Later Life and Death: Salim not only researched about birds, but also contributed to the arena of protection of nature. For his extraordinary efforts, he was given an international award of INR 5 lacs, but he donated all the money to Bombay Natural History Society. The Government of India honored him with Padma Vibushan in 1983. This genius man died at the age of 90 on June 20, 1987.