Salim Ali has a songbird named after him and it is the perfect tribute

We all learnt about our feathered friends from the 'Birdman's' books.

 |  4-minute read |   22-01-2016
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In another first for the country and for my alma mater, the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) , and thanks to an international group of scientists, we now have a new bird named after Salim Ali, our renowned "Old Man", the "Birdman of India". 

India's most famous ornithologist now has had a wildlife sanctuary, a rare species of bat, an institution, and now at last, a songbird - the Himalayan Forest Thrush Zoothera salimalii - named after him.

When I worked as a biologist at the BNHS in the early 1980s, Salim Ali was the principal investigator of the projects we worked on. 

After a stint at the Hydrobiology Project at Keoladeo Ghana National Park, Bharatpur where we ringed so many birds, I worked across 15 Indian states in the endangered species project on the Lesser and Bengal Floricans, some of the most threatened grassland birds in India, guided by renowned Indian conservationist Asad Rahmani. 

When with the help of famous Mirshikar Ali Hussain, we trapped our first lesser Florican at Sailana grasslands near Ratlam, Salim Ali, despite his age, came all the way from Mumbai to honour us by ringing the first bird. It was a great beginning to an exciting career as a wildlifer.

I fondly remember our visit to the Borivli National Park walking on a rather rough forest trail. Even when the going got tough, he insisted on walking unaided when offered a helping hand. 

Despite his rather tiny and frail frame, he seemed to have an inner iron rod holding him up, in addition to the big walking stick he usually carried! 

Later, one time later he wanted to see the movie Gandhi and asked us to buy some dark chocolate to snack on. And yes, I too noticed him removing his hearing aid when he had had enough of some conversation! 

We all learnt about our feathered friends from his many bird books. "Did you carry Salim Ali?" was a refrain we heard when we went for our bird counts. 

To all of us  - JC Daniel, a father figure to many of us; SA Hussain, a "gentle giant" to me; my friends who taught me about birds, butterflies, flowers, stream fish, even rocks and stars -  BNHS was Salim Ali and Salim Ali was BNHS!

We visited Sikkim in October-November 1980 on a month-long natural history expedition, and I got acquainted with his book Birds of Sikkim, commissioned by the Chogyal or Maharaja of Sikkim Palden Thendup Namgyal, and published by the Sikkim Forest Department in 1962. 

Salim Ali had conducted his Sikkim Ornithological Survey over two years accompanied principally by his friend and photographer Loke Wan Tho of Singapore. 

When I moved from Mumbai to Sikkim in 1985 with the intention of settling down in this natural history wonderland, and raising a family at "high altitude" (much to my mother’s consternation), I was concerned to find my Salim Ali (book) not locally available. 

However, when IM Ritchie, the Scottish Principal of the Girls' School in Gangtok, invited me to see a strange bird lying dead in the school campus, we identified it as a Red-winged Crested Cuckoo from her "Salim Ali", one of the few books traceable.  

Fortunately, Keshab Chandra Pradhan, IAS who was at the most senior position in the government was convinced of the need for a reprint and we finally got his support through the Sikkim Nature Conservation Foundation, of which he was Chairman.  "Salim Ali" was back in action in Sikkim! 

He passed on shortly after my move to Sikkim, but accompanied me on his pages through most of my field surveys in the remotest and most difficult areas looking for migratory birds. Hopefully, he shared my delight at being able to add many new names to those already mentioned in his work.

When I was ready to raise a family, I scoured through my "Salim Ali" looking for suitable names for my babies. We settled on Minla and Yuhina, two of the delightful species of birds found in Sikkim, well before they were even born.

Today, good old fashioned bird-watching with binoculars and bird-books, listening to their different calls, their behaviour, their habits and habitats, has been overshadowed by giant cameras with enormous lenses, bird races, bird fairs, twitching and an obsession with getting numbers on lists. 

But then there are the scientists who have added to their field work by incorporating use of latest technologies. Ther are using DNA sequencing, vocalisations, sonograms and such other fine tunings to dig deep into the ecological and evolutionary biology of the species, and find differences that qualify a once-known bird into "splits". 

So we now have a mountain songbird, we earlier called the Plain-backed Thrush Zoothera mollissima split into three distinct species - one of which is now Zoothera salimalii, a bird found from Sikkim-Darjeeling to northwest Yunnan in China. 

Finally a bird named after our Birdman, the one and only, Salim Ali!

Writer

Usha Ganguli-Lachungpa Usha Ganguli-Lachungpa

The author is Principal Research Officer and Additional Director, Sikkim Biodiversity Board and State Coordinator, Indian Bird Conservation Network

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