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Tara Gandhi, author, Words for Birds: The Collected Radio Broadcasts – “We need to protect our urban biodiversity as well”

The grand old man of ornithology Salim Ali gave talks on birding and nature conservation on All India Radio (AIR) between 1941 and 1985. Tara Gandhi, who was guided by Salim Ali for her MSc in Field Ornithology, discovered these lectures archived as catalogued scripts and has compiled them in Words for Birds: The Collected Radio Broadcasts. Providing an insight into one of the greatest minds in Indian conservation, the 35 talks in the book are rich essays on topics such as bird breeding, migration, birding in Sikkim and the usefulness of birds to animals and man.

256pp, ₹599; Black Kite and Hachette India

What prompted you to compile Salim Ali’s lectures and radio broadcasts?

Some years ago, I was researching Salim Ali’s works at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. It so happened that while going through files of his papers and documents, I came across two sheets of papers on which he had listed his radio talks. I put it aside then only to rediscover it later.

Salim Ali’s talks were recorded mainly at the All India Radio (AIR) station in Mumbai (then Bombay) between 1941 and 1985 and the texts were all stored in the Bombay Natural History Society’s (BNHS) archives. He spoke on a fascinating range of topics in a conversational style and with a touch of humour. His views, over the years, are even more relevant today, many being related to the dwindling bird and animal populations and the degradation of natural ecosystems in the country. This compilation, therefore, became a necessity. It was a joy to go through the well-written and detailed scripts and to see the notes and corrections in the beautifully clear writing that I knew so well. I connected with my publisher, Rukun Advani, who very enthusiastically agreed to this project and that’s how this book came about.

Was it hard putting the broadcasts together, or were the archives in fairly good order?

This collection is sourced entirely from the Bombay Natural History Society’s digitized archives of Sálim Ali’s meticulously catalogued original papers. It was quite easy to piece it together into a book. The script of each talk was typed out on an old-fashioned typewriter, then edited by hand with a fine-nibbed pen in his artistic, almost calligraphic, and perfectly legible handwriting. Each talk was about 1500 words, timed to last 14 minutes when read out. Date, time, recording station as well as the station from which each talk was intended to be broadcast was also noted on the top margin of every draft. So he had already done most of the work.

I could have listed the talk only in chronological order, but have also clubbed different topics together. For instance, if he spoke about bird migration in a talk given in the 1950s and then again in the 1980s, I thought it would be useful to put them together in one section so that it’s easy for people to refer to. Also, readers can see how his interest developed over the years and the various issues he emphasized during that period.

How was your first interaction with Salim Ali?

It was a bit of a disaster at first. I was 19 years old (in 1968) and I had finished my graduation. I wanted to do my masters in Field Ornithology with BNHS. I applied and when called in for an interview, it was Salim Ali who interviewed me. But he said, “I am sorry, we cannot accept your application because you are a girl. Our students have to go deep into the forest to do their research work, some of them are dangerous places.” Instead, he offered me a job with the BNHS bird collections where stuffed bird specimens were kept for reference and research. I was quite disappointed as I wanted to be out in the field. I walked away from the position.

About 14 years later, after I was married and with two children, I felt the need to study further. I reapplied for the same Field Ornithology degree. Again, Salim Ali interviewed me and this time I got through and with a fellowship too! He had kept up with the times and acknowledged the fact that there were many girls who had joined in between, that their families supported their nature studies and that they were perfectly capable and at par with boys. These girls showed their mettle and now women have entered this field successfully. Many women biologists and even wildlife vets are posted in remote areas and doing great work.

Before accepting me, Salim Ali put me through a tough selection process. He sent me to a bird migration study camp with senior scientists and young researchers at the BNHS research station at Point Calimere Wildlife Sanctuary (Kodiakkarai) for 10 days. They made sure that I worked with them, walked in the sun and rain and looked at birds all day, slept at the camp and ate whatever food was being prepared. After I “passed” the selection test and started my research under Salim Ali, he found my field reports were not satisfactory and he actually rejected two to three months of my study. He wrote to me to say that my work was not good enough and it had to be better. I was shattered that day but I did improve eventually. Salim Ali himself realised that he couldn’t supervise my work in detail because of logistics (He was in Mumbai and I in Chennai) and his own commitments, so he requested a senior professor of Zoology in Chennai, Dr Sanjeeva Raj to help me. That’s when I was able to do well because I had a local guide in addition to his guidance by correspondence. He was then happy with my work and generous with his approval.

Ornithologist and naturalist Salim Ali (1896-1987) (HT Photo)
Ornithologist and naturalist Salim Ali (1896-1987) (HT Photo)

What was Salim Ali like as a person, teacher, and conservationist?

Salim Ali guided me when he was 88 years old, and he died aged 91. I was one of his last students. Even at that age, he was full of energy, heading BNHS and attending symposiums and conferences. He was a perfectionist and expected the highest standards from his students and staff, as he did from himself. Poor work annoyed him. We, his students, were spread all across the country and he made it a point to visit us at the study sites. He would stay with us, get to know our families, eat and joke with us. He had cancer, and his body became weak at a later stage, yet he would plod on. Even with his physical health failing, he travelled from Mumbai to a remote place in Andhra Pradesh to see the Jerdon’s Courser, a bird that was rediscovered. Such was his relentless commitment and passion for conservation.

He had a strong conviction about the scientific study of the natural world and science-based conservation. At the same, he could enjoy nature. You can see in his talks how he speaks about beauty, colour and musical sounds. He was a prolific writer of books, scientific papers and popular articles as well as an excellent communicator. Apart from his radio talks, he gave a number of lectures to people of different professions — doctors, professors, teachers and even reached out to children.

He was much ahead of his times in understanding the importance of involving people in conservation. He was vocal about the conservation of endangered species and deeply regretted that many had died out. He got a number of national parks and protected areas established and also persuaded royal families to set aside their hunting reserves for conserving wild species.

What is the role of amateur birdwatchers in conservation?

Amateur birdwatchers are contributing in a big way internationally and within India too. Their field reports track trends in bird populations and fill data gaps. Salim Ali himself used to encourage birdwatchers in some of his radio talks, asking them to send their observations.

Nowadays, there is a lot more interest in birds, especially among younger people. There is a great deal of enthusiasm in bird photography and people have been stepping out and getting closer to nature. Because people are more aware, they alert local authorities if they see anything astray — polluted water bodies, which they also volunteer to clean, and illegal encroachments or activities in urban forests, national parks and sanctuaries. All this is further contributing to conservation.

Another huge development is the citizens’ science movement with lay people contributing significantly to scientific information. Through digital venues such as eBird, which encourages birders to upload their checklists to increase our collective understanding of the distribution and population trends of Indian birds. Through this, significant research data is generated. Then counts such as the Asian Waterbird Census (AWC), Great Backyard Bird Count and the Salim Ali Bird Count are helping us keep track of birds. We have plenty of data which can be statistically analysed to see breeding patterns and migration.

The chestnut-shouldered petronia (Shutterstock)
The chestnut-shouldered petronia (Shutterstock)

For Salim Ali, it was the yellow-throated sparrow (now known as chestnut- shouldered petronia) that made him a birdwatcher. What prompted you to get into conversation? Which was the first bird you identified and which one is your favourite?

During school holidays, I used to spend time with my grandparents in Bangalore. Their house was surrounded by old beautiful trees that attracted lots of birds. I was fascinated with the life those trees hosted. I used to love being in the garden hearing their calls and trying to identify them. My grandfather had a huge library and didn’t like us children touching his books. It was even more exciting to secretly browse his book collection, which is where I discovered Salim Ali’s The Book of Indian Birds. My interest in birds was further consolidated when my father gave me my own copy for my sixteenth birthday. I still have this precious book and the first bird I identified using it was the common iora whose beautiful call caught my attention. I am quite fond of barbets. They play a vital role in seed dispersal, an important process for plant communities. The colourful coppersmith barbet is my favourite – though small, it has the loudest voice and is quite vocal.

Salim Ali spoke about ecosystem degradation. How is it affecting bird life and what are the challenges in the Indian context?

Salim Ali was most concerned by the impact of the growing human population and their careless use of natural resources. This continues to be a serious problem that is destroying natural areas like grasslands, forests, wetlands and even scrub jungles and our seacoasts that are important bird habitats. In addition, global warming has pushed many species to change their breeding patterns.

The coppersmith barbet (Shutterstock)
The coppersmith barbet (Shutterstock)

Since most birds have a narrow window to get food to feed their chicks and for breeding, timing is everything. If it becomes hot too early, the birds aren’t prepared. The heat changes everything — insect life, plant growth, fish life. All this can impact their breeding. Secondly, climate change can impact their migration patterns. Birds that would normally stay a little longer in our country because it’s still too cold up in the north are leaving early. If it is getting warm, birds will leave earlier from India. The impact of climate change on ecosystems can’t always be negated but it can be minimised. The habitats migratory birds depend on are in danger of changing and disappearing due to anthropogenic disturbances that are compounded by increasing temperatures, flooding or desertification. Coastal wetland areas that migrating birds use for roosting and foraging are an example.

In the face of rapid urbanisation, how do we conserve bird life? What are the areas that the government must address most urgently?

Whether it is government, industries or private businesses, it is most important for them to see that a number of preventive and mitigation measures are taken to make sure they do not have a negative impact on the natural environment. The extraordinary ecosystems and wilderness landscapes we in India are blessed with must be protected, not only for the benefit of birds, but for all forms of life, including ours. Grasslands, forests, coastal areas and even hillsides or mountain slopes need to be protected from being diverted to other kinds of land–use, particularly constructions of any sort, since they host a number of bird species that are becoming endangered. Local authorities have to look after water bodies on a regular basis, check if they are being polluted, clean them for invasive weeds and stop encroachments.

Recently, in south India, there has been phenomenal rain. We should find ways of storing the excess water, else within three months we will have drought. This is the kind of management and quick thinking we need.

The Aravalli Biodiversity Park in Delhi (Shutterstock)
The Aravalli Biodiversity Park in Delhi (Shutterstock)

We need to protect our urban biodiversity as well. Many cities have healthy green patches, so one important step is to preserve these pockets of nature. In Delhi, we have biodiversity parks — Okhla Bird Sanctuary, Aravalli Biodiversity Park. There is a beautiful river, Yamuna, that can be such a haven for birds if it wasn’t so polluted. Similarly, Chennai has a large city forest called the Guindy National Park, which is a refuge for so many birds and other wildlife. Campuses like IITs/ IIMs, some of the big institutions, even hospitals, schools and colleges, all have sprawling campuses and can have space for mini forests. As far as possible, one should try to reduce the footprint within the city by going in for eco-friendly architecture and avoiding over-concretisation.

Birds and animals are adapting to human presence quite a lot. Suddenly in the middle of the city you can spot a green tree snake. Paradise flycatchers manage to survive in Chennai and similar sightings have been reported in other cities. At least there is some habitat for them. It’s our responsibility to keep these habitats in shape so that there is a good chance for urban birds to live.

What are your thoughts on the increasingly shrinking space for the earth’s non-human inhabitants? Is there any ray of hope for a resolution?

Man-animal conflict is one of the most serious and complex issues now. Coexistence is not always easy but there has to some kind of mutual tolerance or accommodation. We need to improve the habitat of various wild species so that they don’t have the need to come into human dominated spaces.

Urban wildlife conflict is also huge. We have gone so deep into wild areas and constructed suburbs bordering the periphery of many green areas. We have cut huge chunks of forests to make cities. Some birds so far have adapted quite well and nest right on our windowsills — bulbuls, pigeons, mynas. We have water pipes where magpie-robins have built their nest. It shows that they are finding ways to survive. However, the more sensitive bird species that need their own special habitats are unable to adapt and survive. I think we must look into policy measures, especially broad-based polices – where do you allow habitations, where do you demarcate wild areas.

The paradise flycatcher (Shutterstock)
The paradise flycatcher (Shutterstock)

In one of his radio broadcasts, Salim Ali points out that birding was considered an activity of the elite. Would you say that is still true in India? Also, have birdwatching practices shifted over the years? Has it grown in scale and commitment?

Birdwatching used to be a clique at that time and there might be some elitism attached to it still. But now it has become better with more and more people birdwatching, coming from different age groups and backgrounds. I suppose you have to be able to afford a decent pair of binoculars and maybe a camera. There are a lot of job opportunities now not only for academics but also for budding naturalists and birdwatchers with wildlife organisations that believe in conservation action. In the tourism industry there are possibilities too, and resorts are recruiting birders to take their clients out on nature tours and walks. Amateurs taking part in birding counts and attaching themselves as volunteers to various wildlife and nature groups also contribute to conservation.

In fact, Salim Ali tried to change the elitism in birdwatching with BNHS, its nature clubs and education programmes. In one of the radio talks, he spoke in Hindustani to children who don’t understand English and in another he talked about a barber in Europe who would head to birdwatch after his shift was over. Similarly, in Chennai, there is a rickshaw-puller who has been encouraging the well-being of the sparrows in his locality. He stops cats from attacking them and protects their nests. That’s what Salim Ali wanted, that everybody should be interested in birds.

Amrita Talwar is a marketing professional who is an avid birdwatcher.

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