Saluting Salim Ali, who would have been 127 this November | Eye News,The Indian Express
The Birdman of India’s sheer power of observation and descriptive ability, all spiced up with liberal sprinklings of puckish humour, still remains unmatched
In his time – and till the arrival of DSLRs and hi-tech equipment, birding was considered something only good-for-nothing crackpots did, now, of course, the ‘hobby’ is turning into one of those ‘elite’ crazes, with birders competing fiercely to be the first to see and photograph this or that rare species, and compiling mile-long life-lists and getting ecstatic with the ‘lifers’ they ‘have’ (birds they have seen for the first time, but heck, at one point in their lives, even crows were ‘lifers’!) not to mention arguing over the identity of species or sub-species, or sub-sub-species, and whether the bird was young, an adolescent, or had only halfway changed its plumage from one state to another and what it had probably eaten for breakfast that morning.
Salim Ali hated the nitpicking over species identification and as far back as in 1956 wrote to his friend and co-author, S Dillon Ripley: “My head reels at all these nomenclatural metaphysics! I feel strongly like retiring from ornithology, if this is the stuff, and spending the rest of my days in the peace of the wilderness with birds, and away from the dust and frenzy of taxonomical warfare… The more I see of these subspecific tangles and inanities, the more I can understand the people who silently raise their eyebrows and put a finger to their temples when they contemplate the modern ornithologist in action.”
What might have also irritated him, is the way modern birders simply check off species and move on to the next without really studying any one of them for any great length of time, so that you really knew the ways of the bird — which, is how he made his mark through observing the love-life of the baya-weaver, a notorious serial polygamist, over a period of time.
There are many, many truly expert birders (and bird photographers) in India today and most must have (or should have!) cut their teeth on Salim Ali’s all time classic, The Book of Indian Birds (1941).That book should be made mandatory reading in every school — a surefire way of getting children interested not only in birds but in the natural world that actually exists outside their smart-phone and laptop screens! What SA had in spades, which most modern birders sadly lack, is the ability to communicate in a way that enthralls and enchants the reader: The sheer power of observation and the ability to describe the bird with pinpoint accuracy, in diamond sharp and clear language, without recoursing to unfathomable scientific jargon, which would make the reader’s eyes glaze over. All, spiced up with liberal sprinklings of puckish humour — the schoolboy in Salim Ali never really went away! Also, unlike many of us today, he could take a joke at his own expense and had no ego hassles (though he was short-tempered and abhorred shoddy work). Well, after bringing out his monumental 10-volume magnum-opus (with S Dillon Ripley), Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan (1969), he hardly needed to.
As a schoolboy, he had the usual schoolboy passions of his time: the ambition to become a shikari and big-game hunter, a point of view which changed over time, though he still shot specimens for scientific study. He had a love for motorbikes and guns, which would make the more pious and sanctimonious of environmentalists click their tongues reprovingly, but which he made no bones about at all!