When Salim Ali, who had been learning the art of bird ringing and studying specimens at the Berlin Natural History Museum in Germany, returned to India in 1930, he found himself jobless. From 1931-51, he would lead a nomadic existence, going wherever the birds led him.
Born on 12 November 1896, Ali had been obsessed with birds from the time he shot down a yellow-throated sparrow. He maintained birding notes even as a 10-year-old—and kept up the habit until his death on 20 June 1987.
Ali surveyed birds in the princely states of Hyderabad, Gwalior, Indore, Bhopal, Travancore and Mysore, among others, the expeditions resulting in the 10-volume Handbook Of The Birds Of India And Pakistan that he co-authored with American ornithologist Sidney Dillon Ripley. It remains the most comprehensive documentation of birds of the subcontinent.
Over the past decade or so, two ornithologists retraced Ali’s steps in separate surveys in present-day Kerala and Karnataka. Their findings contain clues to what the future holds. For they found the number, and species, of birds had increased—but this included some that have crowded out species found earlier and others, like the peacock, that were not from those areas. They also noticed significant changes in the environment that had impacted species: Plantations, for instance, had replaced grasslands, houseboats had muddied the waters.
C.K. Vishnudas, an ornithologist from Wayanad, retraced Ali’s Travancore-Cochin route, visiting the same locations on the same dates, in 2009, as Ali did in 1933. He published his findings in a paper titled On Sálim Ali’s Trail: A Comparative Assessment Of Southern Kerala’s Avifauna After 75 Years. S. Subramanya, a bird researcher from Bengaluru, followed Ali’s 1939 Mysore trail in 2018-19, and will soon publish his work.
“Ali wanted to pursue ornithology scientifically in India,” says Vishnudas. After surveying Hyderabad state with the help of funds from the nizam, he turned to the evergreen forests of Kerala. With the support of the rajas of Travancore and Cochin, he spent almost all of 1933, from 3 January-31 December, surveying 14 places in Travancore and five in Cochin. He recorded 289 species. He was accompanied by his wife, Tehmina, an enthusiastic birdwatcher, and assistants skilled in skinning birds. Since collecting specimens was the way to record bird diversity at the time, Ali and his team would observe and collect birds till midday and work on preserving them in the afternoons.
Ali’s route took him through the shola forests of Munnar, the thick forests of Thattekad and Periyar, a short ride on the now defunct Cochin State Forest Tramway and the backwaters of Kottayam and Vembanad lake, ending by the sea in what was then Trivandrum. He was a meticulous note-taker, updating his diary every night, recording not only birds but also the habitats he traversed. He documented endemic species like the Nilgiri pipit, black and orange flycatcher and Nilgiri flycatcher. The wetlands of Kottayam were filled with waterbirds, and the waters of Vembanad lake were crystal clear, allowing him to see the sandy lake-bed . Once, somebody took him to a dead bird. It turned out to be a Legge’s hawk-eagle, the only known specimen from those times. Today, there are still only a handful.
Vishnudas and a team of birders surveyed the same 19 localities, recording a greater abundance, diversity and density of birds. They recorded 338 species, 49 more than Ali, but found many differences. “Ali had recorded many vultures wherever he camped. Today, vultures are not found anywhere in Kerala except in Wayanad,” he says. The hilly grasslands in Munnar are overrun by eucalyptus and tea plantations. Most of the area Ali surveyed in Thattekad has been submerged by the Bhoothathankettu dam. “There are more houseboats than birds in Kottayam and Vembanad lake has a layer of oil from the houseboats in the backwaters,” says Vishnudas. Several insectivorous birds are missing from cardamom plantations due to excessive use of pesticides. Great hornbills are now found only in pockets of dense forest in Kerala as the big, old trees they need for nesting have been felled.
The number of birds has grown, though, owing to colonisation by “generalists” like the treepie, house sparrow, bulbul, magpie robin and black-shouldered kite. The bird that has overrun the state is the peacock. Once alien to Kerala, this bird of deciduous scrub forest can now be found across it. Vishnudas found them in 10 of the 19 localities. Recent studies have shown peacocks to be crop-raiders, causing losses to farmers.
After Hyderabad, Ali had turned his attention to Mysore state. R.C. Morris, a naturalist who lived in the Biligirirangan Hills in the then Mysore Presidency, helped him draw up itineraries. In 1932, Ali wrote to the maharaja of Mysore for funds, a request that was rejected. He sought help from S. H. Prater, then curator of the Bombay Natural History Society, who wrote to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The museum agreed in return for 50% of Ali’s specimens; he accepted the condition.
On 6 November 1939, Ali finally began his Mysore survey from the lawns of Honnametti Estate, Morris’ home. Over four months, he covered more than 60 locations across nine districts, surveying the deciduous forests of Nagarahole and Bandipur, the heronries of Ranganathittu lake (discovered during the survey and later declared a sanctuary), the wet forests of Agumbe and Jog Falls, before ending in the mines of the Kolar Gold Fields. He recorded 354 species.
“Salim Ali had a beautiful, succinct way of speaking of birds,” says Subramanya, who worked with Ali briefly. On Ali’s advice, Subramanya, who had studied insects, enrolled for a doctorate in 1981 to study birds in agricultural fields. In February 2018, the day after he retired from the University of Agricultural Sciences in Bengaluru, Subramanya applied to the forest department for permission to survey the areas Ali had visited nearly 80 years earlier. Nine months later, on 6 November, he began his survey from Honnametti Estate. Over the next 110 days, he recorded 417 species.
Subramanya observed and recorded calls and birds. “It was exciting to visit all those areas where Ali had walked,” he says. He too found changes. In the Kabini backwaters, bamboo—the preferred habitat of the pin-striped tit babbler—had died out. “We went to all the areas Salim Ali did but we couldn’t find it,” he says. “That was a huge disappointment.” Ali had not seen birds like the lesser fish eagle, ashy minivets and shore birds Subramanya spotted.
Subramanya, too, noted the degradation and destruction of habitats. Although he did spot Alpine swifts, like Ali, he couldn’t see them roosting in Devarayanadurga due to the explosion in population of bonnet macaques. Jog Falls is now a tourist destination more than a birding one: He could not find the black-capped kingfisher there. Forests in and around Agumbe have seen an increase in human habitation.
Ali may have been pleased at the numbers spotted—but certainly not at the loss of species and habitat changes that may make it more difficult to conserve the birds he devoted his life to.
Vrushal Pendharkar is a Mumbai-based environment journalist