This is the first in a multi-part series about retracing Dr. Salim Ali’s ‘Mysore Bird Survey’.

 

Dr. Salim Ali, the doyen of Indian ornithology, popularly known as the ‘Bird Man of India’, redefined the ornithology of the Indian region. He was one of the first Indians to conduct systematic bird surveys across India and carefully review a large body of literature and bird skin collections from the Indian region. This resulted in the publication of his 10-volume magnum opus, ‘The Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan’, co-authored with Dr. Dillon Ripley. The bird surveys that he undertook included surveys of the princely states of Hyderabad, Cochin, Travancore, Gwalior, Indore, Bhopal, and Mysore, with financial support from the respective rulers.

Dr. Salim Ali (1896 –1987), photographed in 1980. Photo courtesy: Belinda Wright.

These bird surveys brought to light a better understanding of the bird distributions in the Indian region. Amongst other things, these surveys showed some rather curious divergences between certain bird forms inhabiting the eastern and western sides of the Indian peninsula. Their line of separation obviously lay somewhere in the intervening country—the Princely State of Mysore—where no systematic work had been carried out before. In an effort to bridge this gap in Indian ornithology, an ornithological investigation of the Mysore area thus became highly desirable. Dr. Salim Ali achieved this by means of the careful collection of specimens and studying ecological conditions in an attempt to reconcile and account for the differences in the geographical distribution of birds that existed in the region. Some of the observations made on the birds he collected were to be the first such observations in the country.

Dr. Salim Ali conducted the ‘Mysore Bird Survey’ between November 1939 and February 1940, with the consent of the Mysore durbar and financial assistance from the American Museum of Natural History, New York. ‘Mysore Bird Survey’ thus redefined the ornithology of the Princely State of Mysore, which forms a greater part of present-day Karnataka. 

A few years before this Mysore survey, in 1932, upon the conclusion of the Hyderabad Ornithological Bird Survey, Dr. Salim Ali came to live at Kotagiri with his wife Tehmina. On one of their visits to the widow of AM Kinloch (a well-known naturalist of his time), Salim Ali and Tehmina met Ralph Morris (Randolph Comourax Morris)—the son-in-law of Annie Kinloch (née Annie Caroline Whish)—and his wife Heather (née Heather Edith Constance Kinloch), at the Kinloch’s bungalow located at the edge of Longwood Shola in Kotagiri. This casual meeting turned into a friendship that lasted a lifetime (until Ralph Morris died in London in 1977), and paved the way for Salim Ali to visit Morris’s delightful bungalow at Honnametti in Biligirirangana Hills, many times in the years that followed.

Dr. Salim Ali’s interlude at Kotagiri was his first sojourn in the Western Ghats, but Ralph Morris’s extensive knowledge of the Western Ghats and the principalities of Mysore, Travancore and Cochin helped Salim Ali finalise the itinerary for both his surveys of Travancore and Cochin, as well as Mysore. Well before permissions from the Mysore durbar could be obtained, at the behest of Salim Ali, Ralph Morris made a significant collection of the birds of Biligirirangana Hills, where he grew coffee and lived as a hunter-naturalist.

The localities of Dr. Salim Ali’s ‘Mysore Bird Survey’ are spread over nine districts of present-day Karnataka (Bangalore, Chamarajanagar, Chikmagalur, Chitradurga, Doddaballapur, Kolar, Mysore, Shimoga, and Tumkur) and three districts of present-day Tamil Nadu (Erode, Krishnagiri, and Nilgiris). Within these 12 broad regions, over 60 localities were visited by Salim Ali for his collections and observations, and about 354 bird species were recorded as being part of the erstwhile Princely State of Mysore.

Amongst other ornithological insights, Dr. Salim Ali’s survey brought to light three very significant ornithological peculiarities. Firstly, the continued presence of the White-naped Tit (Machlolophus nuchalis), that was last recorded by Jerdon west of Nellore in 1845; it is otherwise known mostly from Gujarat and Rajasthan.  

White-naped Tit

Secondly, the occurrence of another species with disjunction distribution, quite far away from its known haunts in the north Eastern Ghats, Northeast India, and South-east Asia – the Pin-striped Tit-babbler (Macronus gularis);  he collected it at Antarasante, along the bamboo-lined banks of River Kabini.

Thirdly, the discovery of a totally different race of the Rock Bush Quail, whose plumage matched the red laterite soil around Marikanive in Hiriyur taluk of Chitradurga district; it was promptly named after him, as Perdicula argoondah salimalii.

When I was a young birder, totally bowled over by the magical world of birds, the 10th edition of Salim Ali’s ‘Book of Indian Birds’ was a stepping stone to observe and study birds. At that time, I dreamt of meeting Dr. Salim Ali someday, at least once. Rarely did I imagine that an opportunity would present itself—much sooner than I expected—and in 1980, I responded to an advertisement by Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), inviting applications for the posts of research biologists to work in its projects. I traveled to Mumbai to be interviewed by none other than Salim Ali himself! Upon my appointment, I spent 1980-81 working at Point Calimere, Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, and Harike (in Punjab). In mid-1981, I returned to Bangalore to pursue my doctorate degree in Agricultural Ornithology, at the suggestion of Salim Ali.

The author with Dr. Salim Ali, at the Palace Grounds of the Maharaja of Bharatpur, Rajasthan, in 1980. Image courtesy: BNHS (photographed by Belinda Wright).

After Dr.  Salim Ali’s demise, I maintained contact with BNHS, and in the following years, I was involved in many of their initiatives. In early 2000, when I poured over Salim Ali’s publication on the Birds of Mysore Survey, I started dreaming of redoing his survey someday. Opportunity did not present itself until I retired from my position at the University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore, in February 2018. After that, I did not waste any time, and started preparing for the survey. My dream took wings when the Karnataka Forest Department granted me permission to re-conduct the Mysore Bird Survey, as much of the proposed survey spanned across the protected wildlife areas of Karnataka.

However, presently, Karnataka has undergone a tremendous change in its physiography, mainly due to changes in land-use patterns driven by the increasing spread of human population across the state. As a consequence, the regions once surveyed by Dr. Salim Ali have obviously been altered irreparably, with consequent changes in their bird distributions and abundances. My plan was to resurvey the region surveyed by Salim Ali, at the same localities and locations, on the same dates between November 2018 and February 2019, but set apart by almost eight decades.

A map of Karnataka before its reorganisation, showing Salim Ali’s survey locations. Image courtesy: S Subramanya.

Before I could really kick-start my survey, I visited all the Salim Ali survey areas to familiarise myself with the survey locations. This whole recce took eight months in planning and preparations, beginning from March 2018: official permissions to be obtained, accommodations at each of the survey areas to be fixed, forest officials and staff to be met, survey routes to be walked. I identified and visited the very Guest Houses or Inspection Bungalows where Salim Ali stayed in 1939-40. I even visited the national archives at Nehru Memorial Museum & Library in New Delhi, and BNHS in Mumbai, to look through Salim Ali’s manuscripts and bird collections. Moreover, for each leg of the survey, I had to hand-pick my team members – some amazing birders I have been associated with over the years, and those who have this unparalleled reputation of identifying over 90% of birds by their calls alone.

At last, in pursuance of my dream, I commenced redoing the ‘Mysore Bird Survey’ on November 06, 2018, at Biligirirangana Hills, from the very lawns of Ralph Morris’s Honnametti Bungalow, 78 years after Dr. Salim Ali did.

The bird survey team at Honnametti Bungalow. Image courtesy: S Subramanya.