Retweeting the story of Sálim Ali, the Birdman of India
A re-introduction, for children and young or youthful adults, to the man who made birding so much more than just an eccentric passion, by his grand-niece and naturalist Zai Whitaker
In 1924, Sálim returned to Bombay after several interesting but unprofitable years in Burma. He now wanted to get a job and give Tehmina some comforts. Their income from their families was just enough to ‘keep the wolf from the door’, a rice-dal amount. Nothing left over for extras.
Perhaps he was beginning to feel a bit awkward about not earning anything. Society says that men are supposed to earn a living, and support their wives and children.
But Sálim did not want just any job. In Burma, he’d realised his heart wasn’t in business and trade. He wanted something connected with natural history, preferably birds. Eighty years ago, in the 1920s, this must have been like asking for an astronaut’s job today. Natural history was a very new field and you couldn’t hope to make a living as a naturalist or ornithologist.
Things have changed dramatically and I can think of many friends now who are naturalists. Then, the closest thing to a naturalist was the shikari, usually a British official with several ‘native’ helpers who did all the hard work while Sahib got the credit.
Only slightly nutty, eccentric people went around looking at and studying birds and animals. There were a few: Hugh Whistler for birds, Mark Alexander Wynter-Blyth for butterflies, Frank Wall and M.A. Smith for snakes. But they were the exceptions. Natural history was simply not something ‘normal’ people were supposed to spend their time on.
Sálim’s dream of studying birds would have to start from scratch; there were very few resources. In the years to come, he himself would write the first field guide to birds for India: The Book of Indian Birds. It would become one of the most famous Indian books ever. But at the start, it meant shooting, skinning, identifying and studying birds.
Often, a specimen would have to be sent to museums and universities abroad for identification, because they had the best collections of Indian birds. In many ways, it was rather a mad ambition.
Fortunately for Sálim, his family supported him staunchly. His brothers, sisters and wife thought the world of ‘Saloo’ and encouraged him to stick to his guns, quite literally. So Saloo hopefully set about the hopeless task of finding a bird-related job.
He didn’t have much of a choice of where to look. The only two centres of natural history in Bombay were the Zoological Survey of India (ZSI) and the BNHS [Bombay Natural History Society]. The latter was very new, a small group of people collecting and studying the birds of the Indian subcontinent.
Funds for research were limited and it had a tiny staff. The ZSI, on the other hand, was a government institution with a network of field stations all over the country.
So Sálim was excited when he heard that the ZSI had a vacancy, and that, too, for an ornithologist! He applied for the post at once, knowing that such a chance was not likely to come again. He was sorely disappointed when the job went to someone else, probably because Sálim did not have a university degree.
Later, he often spoke to young people about the importance of ‘that piece of paper’. They should get a degree, he said, however boring college classes may be.
For a while, Sálim reluctantly went back to the business world, this time working for his cousins in their cotton export firm, N. Futehally and Co. Like the Ali group, this part of the family was also not very business-minded and Sálim was astonished that the company had survived for so many years since it started, around 1870.
Sálim’s salary, instead of going up, came down, from 150 rupees to 100 rupees per month. Fortunately, his days of being a ‘businessman’ were soon to come to an end. To his great delight, he was appointed Guide Lecturer in the natural history section of Bombay’s Prince of Wales Museum (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya). The BNHS thought this would be a good way of educating people about natural history and conservation. The government agreed to pay for Sálim’s salary.
By the time of his death, Dr Sálim Ali was one of the Great Indians, a national hero. In many ways he was like another of our Greats, Mahatma Gandhi. Both Gandhiji and Sálim Ali were dedicated to, and lived for, an important cause. Gandhiji’s was freedom for India, and Sálim Bhai’s was birds. Both worked very hard for these causes. Both men loved their country and were proud to be Indians.
Both were great readers and writers. Both loved to walk, and covered many hundreds of miles on foot—Gandhiji barefoot and Sálim Bhai in thick, heavy boots. Neither cared for money or property, good clothes or expensive things. Both had little hair, and a lot of nose. Both were great opponents of the British Raj in India.
They liked the company of young people and were courageous, sometimes even foolishly brave. Both had a great sense of humour, and laughed loudly and sometimes toothlessly.
Still, all this future glory didn’t help much right then, on Sálim Bhai’s return from Germany. There was a surprise waiting for him, and not a pleasant one. The position at the Prince of Wales Museum had been cancelled! The government had decided to scrap the post of Guide Lecturer and Sálim Bhai was once again jobless.
On the good side, the experiences in Berlin and the British Museum had injected a new confidence and strength in him. He and Tehmina went for a while to Kihim, a coastal village south of Bombay, where her family had a small cottage.
One day, while walking along the beautiful but scratchy scrub forest bordered by low hills, Sálim Bhai saw a weaver bird, or baya. Then he saw some more. He realised this was a colony of bayas, and they were nesting. For the next three or four months, for several hours a day, Sálim Bhai observed these fascinating birds. His notes and observations were to become famous.
Sálim Bhai discovered that the male baya is a wonderful builder, and the female baya chooses him as a husband not for his looks or colours (he is golden yellow in the nesting season) but for his building skills. Several males get together and start a housing colony, each one weaving a bottle-shaped nest with great care.
When the nests are half-finished, a noisy party of baya ladies arrive to inspect them. Like women buying or rejecting vegetables in a market, they go from nest to nest, till they find one they like. The male flaps around, anxiously waiting for her decision. If she says ‘Yes’, she moves in and he carries on with the building work.
Sálim Bhai also found that the male baya is not content with just one wife. As soon as one nest has been occupied by a wife, he moves on and starts another. He ends up with four or five families. This was the first time that the breeding biology of the baya was properly observed and understood.
It was a pioneering study, and the scientific paper he wrote on it has become a classic. The baya study also shows how powerful just a notebook and pencil can be, in the hands of a good observer.
So 1930, the ‘jobless year’, proved very fruitful. It was then, in the peace and quiet of Kihim, that he began working on The Book of Indian Birds. This has become every Indian birdwatcher’s friend.
While watching the weaver birds hard at work, Sálim Bhai was weaving his own little plans for the future. ‘Enough of this hunting for a job,’ he decided. ‘I’ll just invent my own.’ And he did.