IN September 2008, a towering Albizia lebbeck tree that the famous ornithologist Salim Ali never missed to look up whenever he visited the Parambikulam wildlife sanctuary in Palakkad district of Kerala was felled by a gale. This happened exactly a hundred years after he turned his attention to birds, literally.
Salim Ali was emotionally attached to the tree as he saw it as a magnificent birding site, especially of his favourite bird, the broad-billed roller, or dollar bird (Eurystomus orientalis). Although Albizia is widely distributed in the tropical forests of the Western Ghats, the fallen tree at Kuriarkutty, downhill of Parambikulam, was the tharavadu (ancestral home) of the rollers; perhaps their only nesting ground in the area was its cavities. With the rollers tall perch now lying across the Kuriarkutty river, an unforgettable chapter in the ornithological history of Kerala has come to an end.
A rarely sighted bird, the roller with blue-black plumage and orange-red bill and legs, is parochial. It occupies a nest for life. As it is not a proficient nest-builder, it prefers cavities and crevices of tall trees to lay eggs.
This tree is a marvel of nature, studded with the nests of generations. They are twinkling, twinkling little stars. You have to watch and constantly monitor it, Salim Ali used to tell his disciples.
For the broad-billed rollers, the mist-smeared nests were their high kingdom (the birds prefer a tall perch). Emotionally drawn to the tree whenever he came by its side, Salim Ali would unfold his binoculars to scan its branches for a sighting of the winged beauties. He would watch some of them hopping on the branches, some feeding the young ones, and some others in their courtship display. He always felt he could hear the chirps of the chicks in the nests, recalls ornithologist Dr R. Sugathan, who along with Dr V.S. Vijayan, Chairman of the Kerala Biodiversity Board, has accompanied Salim Ali on his trips to Kuriarkutty.
Even if a lone bird was perched on a branch Salim Ali felt that a hundred rollers had swarmed the tree, and this left dreamy images in his mind. The whispers of the swaying branches often merged with his soliloquies.
In his celebrated work Birds of Kerala, Salim Ali describes the roller thus: It loves to perch rather upright and with feathers fluffed out on some bare limb of a towering forest tree whence it can get a good view of the surroundings. It is also called dollar bird because it has a broad pale blue round patch [the dollar] on [its] wings [which is] conspicuous on flight. It has a harsh call, oft repeated and not at all attractive.
The roaming elephants, the silent but cautious bisons, the bounding spotted deer and the splashing Kuriarkutty river, left an indelible imprint on the mind of Salim Ali. Even today, in spite of the boom in tourism and the disturbances that have accompanied it, the avian empire in the Parambikulam wildlife sanctuary, which lies in the Nelliyampathy range of Kerala and the Anamalai range of Tamil Nadu, is serene.
Salim Ali trekked along the mysterious forest tracts of Parambikulam several times since his first visit to the spot in 1933. He was 37 years of age then, and his mission was to do a bird survey for the then ruler of Travancore. The survey was conducted between November 12 and 23 that year. He stayed in a log house at Kuriarkutty with his wife Tehmina. His ornithological pursuits included catching and identifying birds of various species.
Members of the local tribal community (Kadars), who are familiar with the labyrinths of the forests and endowed with the rare skill of sensing the movement of wildlife, guided him during his bird surveys. Armed with bows and pellets, they killed birds and animals for food.
After the Kuriarkutty survey, Salim Ali frequented the area. The vast expanse of evergreen forest captivated him. He has described this experience vividly in his autobiography, The Fall of a Sparrow.
Whenever he visited Kuriarkutty he would tell his disciples: Why not we go near the bridge over the Kuriarkutty river.... You know there is a towering forest tree there. He would walk by the side of the river and stop to observe the tree closely with his binoculars. He was struck by the conspicuous presence of the roller and by its nesting and perching habits. He spotted the bird during his first visit itself but serious observations began later. He would tell his disciples (Sugathan and Vijayan included) that the nests were many generations old. No other tree in the surroundings had such a striking feature. The Albizia tree was monopolised by the roller.
A bird enthusiast once asked Salim Ali: In your estimate, is the broad-billed roller the most beautiful bird? To which Salim Ali quipped: Do you mean beauty? It depends on how you look at it. I would sometimes say the crow is a really beautiful bird. Having said this, the birdman would break into peels of laughter. Bird-watchers sometimes say jovially that Salim Ali would have liked the jungle crow very much, for when observed through the binoculars, its metallic bluish-black feathers glisten like a rainbow.
Salim Ali died in 1987 at the age of 91. He made his last trip to Kerala in 1986 when he was conferred an honorary doctorate degree by the Kerala Agricultural University. On that occasion, he visited Kuriarkutty along with Vijayan and Sugathan. On reaching Kuriarkutty, Sugathan says, he said, now let us go to the towering tree.
Even at that old age, he exhibited child-like innocence and a deep desire to observe the tree and its inhabitants again. He fervently asked: Would I be fortunate enough to see the broad-billed roller again? I am passionate indeed, for the roller has been my passion. That is because that towering tree stands like a colossus carrying the nests of generations. He looked around. He felt the birds call, and said: I remember, I had noticed the bird during my first visit in 1933 itself.
Sugathan continues, Salim Alis anxiety mounted. Amazingly, in a few minutes, a lone bird emerged in an angelic ambience. It perched on a branch and fluttered for a while. Salim Ali was ecstatic. The bird disappeared suddenly. Salim Ali watched keenly through his binoculars and stood speechless for a while. Then, breaking the silence, he asked: Who had the magic wand to attract the bird. It was one of the most memorable moments in the lives of the master and his disciples.
After the pilgrimage to the tree, Salim Ali expressed a wish to see one of the tribal guides who had led him into the forest during his earlier trips. The elderly man was located in a nearby hut. Though bedridden, he recognised Salim Ali and smilingly asked: Oh, you have come again to shoot birds and skin them. The Wildlife Act was not in force when Salim Ali began his bird surveys. Birds were shot with small guns for identification.
How did you become an ornithologist? Salim Ali often encountered this question. He would reply without any hesitation: It all happened when I shot, with my airgun, a yellow-throated house sparrow somewhere in 1908. Then he was a naughty schoolboy aged 12.
The fall of a sparrow was the turning point in his life. He approached his uncle, anxious to know why that sparrow had a yellow patch. His uncle in turn sent him to the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) in Mumbai. BNHS Secretary W.S. Millard showed young Salim Ali specimens of hundreds of birds of the Indian subcontinent.
It was the beginning of an epoch. Salim Ali scaled new heights in the field of ornithology and, with his matchless dedication, left behind works of epic dimensions.
Vijayan recalls: Whenever Salim Ali visited Kuriarkutty, after finishing official engagements, he would ask when can we go on the pilgrimage? A dilapidated log house at Kuriarkutty was the pilgrim centre. Once Salim Ali told his disciples in an emotionally choked voice, my wife Tehmina and I used to skin birds here. Those bird surveys were so great indeed.
On his last visit, in 1986, he wanted to stay in the wooden house for some time. But by then the house had almost crumbled. Salim Ali was grief-stricken. He stood in the courtyard for some time and wept in silence.
The Kerala government has set up the Salim Ali Bird Interpretation Centre at Kuriarkutty at the spot where the log house stood. T.M. Manoharan, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, said the government planned to develop it into a full-fledged research centre.
Between Chalakudy (50 kilometres from Kochi) and Parambikulam there existed a 68-kilometre tramway via Kuriarkutty. Salim Ali recollects in his autobiography: The track laid through some magnificent hilly country covered with pockets of wet evergreen here and there in the valley and along streams. Every now and then live cinders from the engine came flying. My shirt and Tehminas saree had severe holes. One of the prized specimens he got from the Kuriarkutty area was a feather-toed crested eagle.
When this writer visited Kuriarkutty, the Forest Range Officer Aboobacker located Krishnankutty, one of the Kadars who had accompanied Salim Ali on his treks. I have trekked with Salim Ali during the latter part of his bird-watching trips and studies in Kuriarkutty, he said.
Krishnankutty held one of the fallen branches of the Albizia tree and remarked, Had Salim Ali seen the fallen tree, he would have been heartbroken.
It is 76 years since Salim Ali made his first trip to Kuriarkutty and Parambikulam. The forest cover has vastly diminished thanks to felling of trees, encroachments, habitat destruction and development projects.
Yet, Sugathan says, there are around 280 species of birds left in the Parambikulam-Kuriarkutty area, which is still rich in biodiversity. The bird population is stable. Owing to habitat destruction, the population of the great Indian hornbill, the Ceylon frogmouth and the jungle babbler has diminished, but some new ones have adapted to the environment. There are more waterbirds now since there are dams.
The Malabar trogon is one of the most colourful birds identified and studied by Salim Ali. It is described as a bird with a play of colours. Generally silent, it is known for its musical calls. It likes evergreen moist deciduous areas. The Malabar whistling thrush, referred to as the idle schoolboy, is another attractive bird found in the Western Ghats. Other colourful bird species of the region include the Nilgiri flycatcher, the grey-headed flycatcher, the coppersmith barbet, the ground thrush, the scarlet minivet, the Nilgiri wood-pigeon, the emerald dove, the purple moorhen, the black-crested beza, the laughing thrush, the mottled owl and the river tern.
Salim Alis description of the birds of Kerala and their habitat is so meticulous that one is amazed at his keen sense of observation, Vijayan says.
G. Shaheed is the Chief of News Bureau of Mathrubhumi in Kochi.