Our History

The world’s oldest international conservation organisation

T.Gilbert Pearson, ICBP President 1922-1938

1922 was the year that the birth of the world’s first true international conservation organisation, The International Council for Bird Preservation (ICBP), the organisation which grew into the BirdLife International Partnership, was founded.

1922 has been described as the 20th Century’s annus mirabilis, a miracle year for many reasons.  It was the year that public radio hit the airwaves, especially in the USA and Europe. Suddenly, it became possible to reach huge audiences with new ideas and information and for people to take an active interest in the world beyond their provincial and national borders.

Sharing ideas on new global perspectives can move the world but only if people act upon them. And that’s exactly what happened at midday on June 20 1922, when a remarkable group of people from different countries met in London at the private home of the UK Minister of Finance, the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

They included Dr T. Gilbert Pearson, the co-founder and President of the National Association of Audubon Societies (now National Audubon for USA),  Frank E. Lemon, the  Honorary Secretary of the RSPB (UK),  Jean Delacour,  the President of LPO (BirdLife in France), and P. G. Van Tienhoven and Dr A. Burdet from the Netherlands.

United by their passion for birds they concluded that the only effective answer to the growing trade of wild bird feathers or the threats to migratory birds across the continents had to be through co-ordinated international action.

This was the birth of the world’s first true international conservation organisation, as Professor Kay Curry-Lindahl decades later described the International Council for Bird Preservation.

Soon after this first meeting, a declaration of principles was adopted, which stated, “We believe that in organising a world-wide Committee we can be of much aid to each other in our several countries by the interchange of literature bearing on bird study and bird protection;” and in words very similar to those BirdLife still uses 90 years later:

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

Among its earliest campaigns, ICBP called for an end to the traffic in feathers of wild birds for the hat-making trade. Outrage at this trade had been behind the foundation of the National Audubon  (BirdLife in the US) RSPB (BirdLife in the UK), and VBN (BirdLife in the Netherlands) towards the end of the 19th century, and remained a concern for ICBP well into the 1950s, when the fashion died out, at least in part because of awareness-raising by ICBP member organisations. 

Other early concerns, which remain central for BirdLife today, included the protection of birds on migration, and the identification and protection of the areas where birds congregate in large numbers and the most important sites for threatened birds.

An example from the Netherlands of a Little Tern used in millinery. Photo: VBN

Alarm over the growing extinction crisis led to ICBP, other organisations and governments to create the foundation of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 1948.

ICBP was given responsibility within IUCN for compiling data on the world’s threatened birds. The first Red Data Book for birds was published in 1966. This Red Data Book and its successors had a profound effect on the global conservation agenda by setting conservation priorities, and galvanising government, institutional and donor support for conservation.

ICBP was also instrumental in promoting international wildlife laws, most significantly the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species and the European directives on wild birds and habitats.

ICBP retained its unpaid, voluntary structure until Phyllis Barclay-Smith stepped down, after more than 40 years of tireless service in the late 1970s. A new professional Secretariat began a global programme of bird and site conservation projects.

Some of the BirdLife Partnership’s best known conservation initiatives, such as the work at Arabuko-Sokoke forest in Kenya, and protection of the only known colony of Zino’s Petrel in Madeira, were begun by ICBP in the early 1980s.

ICBP’s structure as a ‘federation of federations’ (national sections including conservation organisations, government agencies, universities, museums and special interest groups) proved too cumbersome for united conservation campaigns.

A new vision was needed and this was to lead to transition from ICBP to the BirdLife Partnership in March 1993. The new model was to have a single BirdLife Partner for as many country and territories as possible around the world. 

The world today is a different and generally more democratic place than in 1922. Wireless communication, which once meant the radio, is now very much a two-way process, and the Internet has transformed every nature enthusiast from a passive recipient of information into an active citizen scientist.

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 in Geneva, Switzerland

ICBP’s first formal conference is held in Geneva, Switzerland. The next BirdLife World Congress is being held in Ottawa, Canada in 2013 and will be attended by more than 400 delegates.


Success with oil

ICBP’s ceaseless lobbying on oil pollution finally bears fruit with the International Convention on Prevention of Pollution of the Sea by Oil.


Seeing Red

First Red Data Book of birds is published. Today, although there has not been a return to the detailed Red Data Books of the 1980s, the IUCN Red List is a properly justified and documented evaluation of species at risk of extinction. That it has this depth of information and transparency is at least a partial consequence of the persistence of the Red Data Book programme.


Cousin Island in Seychelles is purchased

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


The European Union’s Birds Directive

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


Leading in Conservation

The Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) is launched. The CLP offers support to young conservationists living and working in Africa, Asia, East/South eastern Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East and the Pacific Islands.


Red List for birds

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.


British Birdwatching Fair

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 from the Spanish Steppes, to the Atlantic Forest of Brazil.


BirdLife is born

ICBP becomes BirdLife International and the BirdLife Partnership is born. Initially with 20 Partners it now comprises 116 and continues to grow


Vulture crisis spotted and stopped

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


Growing BirdLife Partnership

The BirdLife Partnerships now comprises 60 national Partners.


Save the Albatross

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

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


The tradition of Hima

Lebanese Partner SPNL begins to implement the traditional Islamic Protection of Hima at Important Bird Areas. In 2008, SPNL helped initiate a Hima Fund with Friends of the Environment Center (BirdLife in Qatar) thanks to a generous donation.


Think Pink to save flamingos

The BirdLife Partnership is first alerted to the threat of soda ash extraction at Lake Natron, Tanzania, the main breeding site for Lesser Flamingo. The “Think Pink” campaign succeeded in preventing a damaging development along the shores of the lake.


Rimatara’s Return

After an absence of more than two centuries Rimatara Lorikeets are reintroduced to the island of Aitu in the Cook Islands thanks to the work of Pacific Partners and many others.


Forest of Hope

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 South-East Asia.


Saving one of Europe's last wilderness areas

Rospuda Success: Lead by OTOP (Polish Partner), the campaign to save this important site is won when the Polish Government abandons its plans for a road development.


Blueprint for conservation in the Americas

The Important Bird Area (IBA) inventory for the Americas is published with 2,345 sites described. Today 12,000 terrestrial and 3,000 marine IBAs have been documented globally by the BirdLife Partnership using globally standardised criteria and 40% of which enjoy some degree of protection.


Using birds as the pulse of the planet

UN Millennium Development Goals report profiles one of BirdLife International's key indicators for the first time 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.


Reprieve for Danube Delta

Danube Delta Protected: Advocacy work by SOR (Romanian Partner) and BirdLife leads to Romanian President confirming strict protection of 18 areas within this biosphere reserve.


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 116 NGOs.