Our History

BirdLife - the World’s Oldest International Conservation Organisation

T.Gilbert Pearson, ICBP President 1922-1938

1922 has been described as an annus mirabilis (a ‘miracle year’) for many reasons – literary, political and technological. Perhaps most importantly, it was the year that public radio hit the global airwaves. Suddenly, it became possible to reach huge audiences with new ideas and information and people began to take an active interest in the world beyond their provincial and national borders.

However, sharing ideas on new global perspectives can change the world only if people act on them. That’s exactly what happened at midday on 20 June, 1922, when a group of people from different countries met at the London home of the erstwhile UK Minister of Finance to found The International Council for Bird Preservation (ICBP).

This was the world’s first international conservation organisation, as renowned Swedish zoologist Professor Kai Curry-Lindahl described decades later. It’s where the BirdLife International Partnership has its roots.

The visionaries 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 group, united by their passion for birds, decided that co-ordinated international action was the answer to the various threats birds faced. In words very similar to those BirdLife still uses 90 years later, their declaration of principles stated:

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

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 lead 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 far since those days: active conservationists, once numbered in dozens, are now counted in millions, with ten million supporters of the BirdLife Partnership alone. We all owe a debt to the handful of people who came together to form the ICBP in the annus mirabilis of 1922.



BirdLife Timeline 



More information


ICBP is founded

International Committee for Bird Preservation (ICBP) is founded, becoming the first truly international conservation organisation.


ICBP’s first formal conference is held 

ICBP’s first formal conference is held in Geneva, Switzerland. The next BirdLife World Congress is being held in Singapore in October 2017.


Cousin Island in Seychelles is purchased

ICBP purchases the first private reserve in Cousin Island, Seychelles to save the Seychelles Warbler from extinction. Today, the reserve is run by Nature Seychelles (BirdLife in the Seychelles) and warblers have been translocated to neighbouring islands. The species is no longer at risk from extinction.


The European Union’s Birds Directive is adopted

ICBP European members are instrumental in getting the European Union Birds Directive approved. This is the first EU environmental directive. Today, around 25,000 sites are protected under the Natura 2000 network of the Birds and Habitat Directives.


First Red List for birds published

The first comprehensive IUCN Red List for birds produced by ICBP. In 1994, threat criteria for each species are added. Annual revisions are now produced and these are the global baseline for all species conservation work.


The first British Birdwatching Fair is held

The first British Birdwatching Fair is held at Rutland Water in central England. This annual event has gone on to raise over £2 million for BirdLife projects around the world.


BirdLife is born

ICBP becomes BirdLife International and the BirdLife Partnership is born. It started with 20 Partners and now comprises 120, and continues to grow.


Vulture crisis spotted and stopped

Vulture populations in the Indian subcontinent go into freefall. The culprit, the veterinary drug Diclofenac, is identified in 2004. In 2012, researchers from the BirdLife Partnership finally report population stabilisation.


Save the Albatross campaign launched

The BirdLife Partnership launches the Save the Albatross Campaign. The work of the Albatross Task force is now being carried out in seven countries, working at the frontline of seabird conservation in bycatch ‘hotspots’ throughout southern Africa and South America.


BirdLife Datazone launched

BirdLife launches the datazone. It is now the largest repository of information on globally important species and sites. It also contains The State of the World’s Birds, a searchable database of more than 280 case studies.


First Forest of Hope designated

The world’s first restoration concession is granted: to a BirdLife Partner coalition by the Indonesian Government. Today, the 100,000 hectares of Harapan Rainforest is a leading innovative forest conservation project in southeast Asia.


Blueprint for conservation in the Americas published

The Important Bird Area (IBA) inventory of 2,345 sites for the Americas is published. Today, 12,000 terrestrial and 3,000 marine IBAs have been documented globally by the BirdLife Partnership. Forty percent of them enjoy some protection.


Using birds as the pulse of the planet

The UN Millennium Development Goals report profiles one of BirdLife International's key indicators for the first time for the degree of protection of Important Bird Areas. Today, other BirdLife indicators (Red List Index, Wild Bird Index, etc.) are widely used to measure the success of several international conventions and agreements.


90th birthday

BirdLife International celebrates its 90th anniversary and now is the world’s largest Partnership of civil society organisations for conservation and nature, comprising 119 NGOs.

Additional readings: 

PDF icon  Foreword from the Handbook of the Birds of the World: a history of the BirdLife Partnership
Ninety years and growing: how BirdLife went from a council of experts to everybody’s global Partnership


Next page: Our Global Partners