Ah, that's a Barbet!


#9 Ah, that's a Barbet!

By Staff Reporter - Mumbai - The Indian Express - 14 July 1996

A centenary edition of Dr Salim Ali's Book of Indian Birds is released.

The release last week of 12th revised and enlarged centenary edition of Salim Ali's classic, Book of Indian Birds by the Bombay Natural History society, brings to mind a story related by a fellow-journalist. She was interviewing the famed ornithologist and found it hard going. The old man couldn't hear what she was saying and frequently interrupted her questioning with a loud "Pardon?". Suddenly, however, his face lit up. Pointing somewhere to a tree in a distance, he exclaimed: "Did you hear that? That was a barbet!"

That's Salim Ali, a man who could hear birds, communicate with them and went on to document their wonderous diversities.

It is believed that Ali's interests in the creatures whom he defined as "feathered bipeds" goes all the way back to his childhood, when he reared birds and observed them at close quarters (some of these were actually smuggled from the family kitchen with the connivance of the cook, or so goes the legend).

But when did the boy, who loved birds, get transformed into one of the best known ornithologists in the world? Again there is a story to explain this. It seems a sparrow had been shot and the 12-year-old Ali brought the dead bird over to the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) in order to identify it. Obviously the visit proved decisive. In a family of high achievers, Ali stubbornly decided to strike out on a different track - one that led him to various wildernesses in the country, from the lowlands of Bharatpur to the highlands of Garhwal. He was lucky to have been trained under a very well known ornithologist of the day, Professor Erwin Streseman of Berlin University.

Ali's single-minded pursuit of birds was combined with a rare commitment to academic excellence. His surveys undertaken in 1931 are today regarded as definite, providing the country with a well-documented, well-classified knowledge system on Indian avifauna. But Ali did something more - he persuaded the authorities to spare some thought and space for feathered beings. The magnificent Bharatpur bird sanctuary would not have existed in its present form if Ali had not lobbied for it.

Public honours are never the most important thing in such a man's life, but he had more than his share of them - from the Asiatic Society's Joy Gobind Law Medal for `Researches in Asiastic Zoology' in 1953 to the Dadabhai Naoroji Memorial Prize in 1986.

What culminated a lifetime of work was the 10-volume, Handibook of the Birds of India and Pakistan, which Ali had co-authored with Dillon Ripley, but what is without doubt his best known work is Book of Indian Birds, which was first published in 1941. It is by this book that thousands know him by, from zoologists to children. Ali had last revised and enlarged the book in 1979, when the eleventh edition, which described and illustrated 296 species of birds, came out. The BNHS subsequently decided to enlarge the scope of the volume by covering common and interesting birds from all the biogeographic zones in India. It is this volume that has just been released to commemorate the centenary of Ali's birth.

The centenary edition describes 538 species (in 64 plates) and have been complied in the same style and format as the earlier work by J C Daniel, ex-director, BNHS. Incidentally the illustrations in this book are new and have been especially prepared for this edition by Carl D'Silva (apart for one plate on mynas which was prepared by Ali's favourite bird illustrator, J.P. Irani.)

And thus does Ali's work take wing yet again!

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