Salim Ali’s name is synonymous with Indian birds. Being a self- made bird ecologist, he conducted numerous expeditions in entire Indian subcontinent spanning over six decades that made him an authoritative guide to 1300 species. He lived a fruitful life of 91 years from 1896 to 1987. His deep knowledge and wide range of nature concern is unparalleled. Salim Ali’s significant contributions to Karnataka’s avian fauna are –
Salim Ali had intended to have bird collecting camp at Gangawati (Raichur Dist) during Hyderabad State Ornithological survey in 1931. Since requisite finance was not sanctioned by Nizam government, he was compelled to curtail the survey. Thus Nizam ruled Bidar, Gulbarga & Raichur region bird knowledge remained unobserved. These districts are now part of Karnataka.
Fig: Mysore State Bird survey team stayed here in Devarayanadurga, Tumkur
Fig: Salim Ali in action even at the older age
Fig: Salim Ali was honoured with Padma Vibhushana by Dr Fakrudhin Ali Ahmed
Photos of Salim Ali ( Courtesy: Nehru Memorial Museum and Libray & Oxford University Press, New Delhi)
Fig: Mysore map with surveyed location
Bird surveys of the Madras Presidency, Hyderabad, Travancore and Cochin States by Salim Ali showed some interesting divergences between certain forms living in the eastern and western parts of the Indian Peninsula. So systematic work was envisaged to investigate the line of separation obviously lay somewhere in the intervening country of Mysore. Mysore durbar provided permission and logistic assistance; and American Museum of Natural History, New York facilitated the survey by financing. One will be overwhelmed to know that despite losing his better-half, just four months before Mysore Bird survey, Salim Ali conducted the survey with equal enthusiasm. Tehmina, Salim Ali’s wife used to be a constant companion, accompanying him in most of the expeditions expired in July 1939 due to post-operative complications.
Salim Ali toured erstwhile Mysore state during 6th November 1939 and 25th February 1940 spread over four months. Extensive bird survey was held at 63 locations like Agumbe, BR hills, kemmanugundi. He toured evergreen, moist, deciduous, thorn-scrub, farm fields, wetland, hills, and plains in search of birds. Finally, he established the presence of 346 bird species. Final report comprises the findings of game hunters and naturalists residing in this part of the country, such as Morris, Phythium, Betts, Davison & Taylors’. With survey result, he convinced and influenced Mysore rulers to establish Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary in 1940 which is now one among 465 Important Bird Area, a priority conservation site in India.
Fig: Famous words of Salim Ali displayed in Ranganathittu
With this study, in addition to consolidating the bird species recorded in the entire region, Salim Ali concluded the habitat types for resident bird species; proved range extension of Rufous-bellied Shortwing from Nilgiris to Bababudan Hills; presence of rare resident species Hair-crested Drongo in Tumkur; recorded seasonal local movements of Baya Weaver Bird; Mysore was added to the ascertained range of Grey-breasted Prinia; for the first time recorded three varieties of migrant Leaf Warbler; documented immature male Rose-ringed Parakeets participation in reproduction, and importantly mating of Alpine Swifts in mid-air.
Currently, India has large number of competent Bird watchers wholly due to Salim Ali’s pictorial field guide – The common Birds of India. This was first published in 1941 in a simple non-technical language for a layman, sold at a cheaper rate. Field guide was compiled during his un-employment days with a wife to support while residing in Dehradun during 1935.
Competent amateur bird watchers and photographers collated data from entire Karnataka has now touched 550 bird species. Salim Ali’s 346 bird species now stands 550, is attributed to increase in two fold geographical areas after states reorganization and studies over a long period covering all the seasons yielding complete information, than the one short seasonal survey conducted by Salim Ali. Present record shows additional 100 species from earlier surveyed eight districts of erstwhile Mysore State, 50 pelagic & coastal specialists from coastal areas and rest from northern Karnataka.
Forest stretches that were contiguous and healthy have dwindled, denuded and restraining resident birds within the reduced patchy habitat. Some of the affected birds are - Blue-bearded Bee-eater , Spotted Babbler , Red Spurfowl , Painted Spurfowl. Birds present in reduced habitat are now foraging in the degraded forests or converted agriculture fields. Anthropogenic pressure made vast grasslands to fade away. Affected birds are -Painted Sandgrouse & Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse , Great Indian Bustard , and Lesser Floricon . Excluding Floricon, these birds are still present, in very minute numbers in different part of Karnataka. Some of the birds like Swinhoe's Snipe, Great Bittern, Woodcock, White-eyed Pochard recorded during his time are not found now. Surprisingly four time visitor Tufted Pochard has not been seen.
Congregation of Demoiselle Cranes in 1000s at Kapila river near Nanjanagudu, Yelandur Tanks, and at confluence of River Kapila, Cauvery at T.Narasipura was a common feature during winter in those days; and were flying over Mysuru city regularly. In recent years few individual Demoiselle Cranes were recorded at Maddur kere near Yelandur and KRS backwaters, and infrequently around Hidkal dam near Belgaum. Sighting record of Grass-hopper Warbler, Orphean Warbler, Large Whistling-Duck and Gadwall is presently same as in 1940s, just once.
In order to save Great Indian Bustard, a rare bird from extinction it was suggested vehemently for complete protection both from professional snares and sportsmen. Known population of Bustards from Ranibennur has disappeared in the last decade and few isolated individuals have been recorded in Koppal district, three years back by North Karnataka Birders Network.
Presence of common winter migrants -Glossy Ibis & Whiskered Terns seems to be recent trend, as these were not recorded during Salim Ali’s survey. Salim Ali’s observations like White Ibises are less common than Black Ibises is now reversed; it is still true that most of the time winter migrants- Garganeys are always out-numbered Northern Pintail and Cotton Teals ; and un-commonly found White-necked Storks breeding locations are now identified from Nanjanagudu & Jog Falls environ.
The last two decades waterfowl census covering Mysore, Mandya and Chamarajanagar districts have clearly shown the decline in the breeding of local waterbirds. And also decline in quantum of visiting migratory birds in winter. Attribution for breeding decline is extensive fishing throughout the year causing disturbance for foraging, roosting and breeding. The disturbance deprives their most palatable food, and also decrease or even retards reproductive capabilities of these birds. Moreover secluded nesting and roosting sites are exposed to the ire of fisherman because some species consumes their valuable catch, fishes.
Few reasons for decline of winter visitors are -Non-availability of favored depths in the lake, change in the habitat condition- water quality affecting the primary producers and consumers and intern feed to the birds. Though food is available in the lake, accessibility is restricted by the increased human activity like cultivation in shore, tank bed, fishing, water sports, poaching. Eutrophication due to fertilizer run-off, sewage, industries polluted water, excessive overgrowth of weeds causing food imbalance. In addition to Encroachment & Siltation, converting lakes for development activities like solid waste disposal, bus stand, offices, and public amenities resulted in reduced lakes available to the birds.
After a gap of Thirty-four years, Salim Ali visited Ranganathittu Bird sanctuary on 20th June 1974. Visitors logbook here has Salim Ali’s handwritten view, ‘Having had a hand in the initial establishment of Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary in 1940, while on an Ornithological Survey of the then Mysore State, I have been particularly happy to note the improvements that have taken place here during intervening year. On the present visit I was hoping to see the heronry in full occupation but owing to the lateness of the monsoon only a few Open-bill Stork and some Egrets have arrived as yet, and nesting has not commenced. I had the privilege of discussing various suggestions on improvement of facilities for the birds as well as visitors with the forest officials concerned, and I look forward to visiting the place again before long to see them implemented’.
In an interview with Delhi Akashavani on 27th April 1975, Salim Ali clearly stated his role in Indian ornithology, ‘I have always been an ecologist rather than a classifier of birds. For instance I have always been much keener on the living birds than on the dead, so that all the ecological studies of these birds that have been described in our handbook have not been found in earlier books, when most of the people were taxonomists’.
Salim Ali, an enthusiast bird specialist in individual capacity surveyed entire Mysore state in 1939, exactly 75 years back at a time when the word ‘infrastructure’ was almost unheard and established a baseline data. The birders of Karnataka shall remember him for two reasons especially in November: First, historic Mysore bird survey that was started on 6th November and the second, he was born on 12th November.
Having experienced Salim Ali’s contribution, we should accept honestly that somehow we have failed to follow his footsteps, in preserving the bird habitat and monitoring the bird diversity on regular basis with available modern facility and infrastructure.
Fig: Handwritten expression of Salim Ali recorded in Visitors log of Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary, Mandya Dt