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It’s Time:100 Years of BirdLife

A century ago, visionary conservationists concerned about the plight of the world’s birds and the wider environment came together to form an international movement. 

Rooted in the foundations of a handful of campaigning national organisations, it steadily gathered momentum, spread its wings and eventually evolved into a powerful global voice for nature.  

This is how the BirdLife story began.

At midday on 20 June 1922, a group gathered at the London home of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Robert Horne – then MP for Glasgow. United by their passion for birds, the group decided that co-ordinated international action was the answer to the various threats birds faced and founded The International Council for Bird Preservation (ICBP) – now BirdLife International.

“…by united action, we should be able to accomplish more than organisations working individually in combating dangers to bird-life.”

The 1922 ICBP Declaration of Principles

T.Gilbert Pearson, ICBP President 1922-1938

Our History

Bombay Natural History Society is formed– BirdLife’s Partner in India and the oldest non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Asia. Started as a club for nature-loving residents to exchange notes and exhibit specimens, it has grown into a respected national institution for scientific research, conservation and advocacy. Although it focuses on all nature, its work for birds is significant, including preventing the poisoning of Critically Endangered vultures and protecting the habitat of the fascinating Indian Skimmer.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is created in the UK by philanthropist Emily Williamson, to combat the fashion for exotic feathers in hats that was driving bird species to extinction. Her all-women movement gained momentum, and in 1921 the Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Act was passed. BirdLife continues to have women at the helm, including our current CEO Patricia Zurita – the first woman from a developing country to lead an international NGO.
National Association of Audubon Societies (later National Audubon Society) forms in the USA, bringing together existing Audubon Societies in several states. The first Audubon Society, the Massachusetts Audubon Society, was set up in 1896 by socialites Harriet Hemenway and Minna B. Hall to end the slaughter of millions of waterbirds for the millinery trade. In 1900, Audubon member Frank M. Chapman launched the Christmas Bird Count as an alternative to the traditional Christmas bird hunting competition.
On 20th June, a group of visionaries meet in London to form the International Council for Bird Preservation (ICBP) – the precursor of BirdLife and the world’s first international conservation organisation. Attendees include Dr T. Gilbert Pearson, co-founder and president of the National Audubon Society, Frank E. Lemon, honorary secretary of the RSPB, Jean Delacour, president of the Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux (LPO – BirdLife in France), and P.G. Van Tienhoven and Dr A. Burdet of the Netherlands.
BirdLife helped to found IUCN and is responsible for compiling data on the world’s threatened birds. In 1964 the first Red Data book on Birds was published, outlining all bird species at risk of extinction. In 1994, threat criteria are added, allowing researchers to use consistent metrics such as range and population size to define threatened species. Annual revisions are now produced, which form the global baseline for all species conservation work, including guiding our Preventing Extinctions Programme and helping to define our network of Important Bird & Biodiversity Areas.
ICBP purchases Cousin Island in the Seychelles to create a reserve and save the Seychelles Warbler, which at the time numbered only 26 birds. Today, the reserve is run by Nature Seychelles – an independent local BirdLife Partner formed in 1998 to replace BirdLife’s Seychelles country programme. Thanks to the restoration of its native woodland, the species no longer faces extinction. Its population now numbers more than 25,000 birds, and some warblers have been translocated to neighbouring islands.
ICBP European members are instrumental in getting the European Union Birds Directive approved. This is the EU’s first ever piece of environmental legislation, aiming to safeguard all 500 bird species occurring within its countries. Today, over 27,000 sites are protected under the Natura 2000 network of the EU Birds and Habitat Directives – the world’s largest coordinated network of protected areas. BirdLife’s science and advocacy continues to play an instrumental part in environmental legislation across the world.
ICBP is relaunched as BirdLife International with a new Partnership structure. Finding its former structure as a ‘federation of federations’ too cumbersome for united conservation campaigns, the then director Christoph Imboden proposed a new model with a single BirdLife Partner in each country, covering as many nations as possible around the world. The plan worked, and today the BirdLife family is at its strongest, with over 115 Partners working to protect birds and habitats.
BirdLife launches the Save the Albatross campaign – a precursor of the Albatross Task Force – after finding that widespread declines in albatrosses were driven by accidental ‘bycatch’ in fishing gear. To date, the Albatross Task Force has trialled and introduced ground-breaking new technology, working alongside fishers onboard vessels across eight countries to introduce safer fishing practices. South Africa is a shining example, with an astounding 99% reduction in albatross deaths since our team started there in 2006.
The world’s first forest restoration concession is granted to BirdLife. This new type of forest management license allows BirdLife Partners to restore more than 2,000 square kilometres of Harapan Rainforest on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia. Today, logging is strictly limited and the forest has been allowed to regrow, with nature-friendly livelihoods set up for local people. The most recent development is a sustainable rubber agroforestry initiative supported by BMW Group and Pirelli.
BirdLife celebrates its 100th anniversary – a year to look back on past successes, but also to apply these lessons to future action. At a critical turning point in the nature and climate crises, we will be using this milestone in our history to inspire and engage new audiences. Our staff will attend important meetings such as the UN Climate Change Conference (COP27) and the UN Biodiversity Conference, helping to define the next century of nature conservation.

Our foundations

The people who met that day included Dr T. Gilbert Pearson, co-founder and president of the National Association of Audubon Societies (now National Audubon in the USA); Frank E. Lemon, honorary secretary of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB, now BirdLife in the UK); Jean Delacour, president of the Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux (LPO, now BirdLife in France); and P.G. Van Tienhoven and Dr A. Burdet of the Netherlands.

The organisation’s early concerns, which remain central for BirdLife today, included the protection of migrating birds, the identification and protection of the areas where birds congregate in large numbers, and the most important sites for threatened birds.

The ICBP was responsible within the IUCN (which it helped co-found) for compiling data on the world’s threatened birds in the Red Data Book for birds (1966). Today, its successor, the IUCN Red List for birds has a profound effect on the global conservation agenda. ICBP was also instrumental in promoting the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species and the European directives on wild birds and habitats.

But ICBP’s structure as a ‘federation of federations’ proved too cumbersome for united conservation campaigns. A new vision was needed: this led to the transition from ICBP to the BirdLife Partnership in March 1993. The new model was to have a single BirdLife Partner for as many countries and territories as possible around the world.

We have come a long way since then. 117 BirdLife Partners are now working together to protect birds and habitats on every continent. Active conservationists, once numbered in dozens, are now counted in millions, with ten million supporters of the BirdLife Partnership alone.

Golden Jublee, BNHS, 10 August 1933 at Sir Cawasji Jehagir Hall

Women at the helm

Women have long been at the forefront of the movement to protect birds and nature. In the nineteenth century, elaborate hats adorned with bird feathers – the more exotic the better – were the biggest thing in fashion, leading to devastating population declines in bird species including Little Egrets, Great Crested Grebes and birds-of-paradise.

In 1891, Emily Williamson and Eliza Philips co-founded the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB and BirdLife in the UK), as part of a campaign to halt the plumage trade. Audubon (BirdLife Partner in the United States) has similar origins. In 1896, Harriet Hemenway and Minna B Hall organised a series of afternoon teas to convince Boston society ladies to eschew hats with bird feathers. These meetings culminated in the founding of the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

At the ICBP’s sixth meeting in 1935, Phyllis Barclay-Smith of the RSPB was appointed as the London-based sub-Secretary to the Secretariat. In 1946 she replaced Count Leon Lippens as Secretary of ICBP. She led the organisation through the 1960s, a pivotal decade in which it started making substantial progress with practical conservation measures, becoming its Secretary-General from 1974-78, assisted in later years by Robin Chancellor.

In 1958 Phyllis Barclay-Smith became the first woman to receive an MBE for work in conservation, and in 1970 she was made CBE. Hers was an impressive period of service, both for its duration and the fact that, unlike the great majority of organisational leaders at the time, she was a woman – echoing the role of Emily Williamson in the genesis of the RSPB, and part of a long-running theme continued by former BirdLife Chief Executive Patricia Zurita.

Patricia Zurita, former Chief Executive Officer of BirdLife International

We have made a difference

But we’re running out of time.

The natural world is in crisis. At least a million species are at risk of extinction, changes in our climate are causing unprecedented natural disasters and the pressures we’re putting on our planet are unsustainable.

The next decade is critical, and we need everyone to join us in our fight to save nature.

We hope you were able to join us at the BirdLife100 World Congress

The BirdLife100 World Congress was a historic moment and brought together conservationists and renowned advocates for the environment to work together and bring nature back from the brink.

Our World Congress saw the launch of our ambitious new 10-year global strategy to address the nature and climate crises threatening our existence. 

On 15 September we held a series of discussion panels at London’s prestigious Freemasons Hall where global thought leaders explored topics ranging from biodiversity and climate change to conservation finance and the links between the health of our planet and human health.  The event culminated with a fundraising 100th Anniversary dinner in the evening of 15 September at the iconic Victoria and Albert Museum.

With thanks to our event sponsors

Its timeto take flight

Celebrate 100 years of conservation action and support our ambitious plan to save nature in the next 10 years.

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