In 1896, a flock of gentlemen ornithologists began dining together in Melbourne. The table was decorated with wattle and the nest of a Ground Thrush, complete with fresh eggs. There was talk of the formation of a union, as in Britain and the USA, but it took a few more years and dinners before they resolved to proceed. A committee was formed to solicit members for a truly national organization, in line with the mood for federation at the time. They were successful in attracting 137 members, 66 from Melbourne, the rest from around the country, including six women. The particularly intense Sydney-Melbourne rivalry of that era saw to it that there was no Sydney representative.
In 1901, the Australasian Ornithologist''s Union was hatched:
''The Objects of the Society are the advancement and popularisation of the Science of Ornithology, the protection of useful and ornamental avifauna, and the publication of a magazine called The Emu; Thus bird students will be kept in touch with one another, original study will be aided, and an Australian want supplied.''
At the time ''Australasian'' meant Australia and Tasmania and sometimes New Zealand was thrown in. New Zealanders were part of that first mix, and remain so, but formed their own society in 1939. With the blessing of the British monarch, King George V, the ''Royal'' was added in 1910 and somewhere along the way the apostrophe was dropped to become the Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union (RAOU).
Over the years research and conservation have remained at the forefront, but the emphasis has swung from ornithology based on collecting to ornithology for conservation. All or most Australian ornithologists of prominence have been members. The perceived Melbourne focus, bird names, amateurs versus professionals, and finances have all at times caused dissent, but the organisation continues to prosper and grow.
In 1996, recognising that a snappy tag was essential in a modern world, the trading name Birds Australia (BA) was adopted and the RAOU retained as the registered name. Now, in 2007, BA has about 8,000 members, 25,000 supporters, eight regional groups, a reserve, two observatories, a membership magazine and a scientific journal. With the exception of the war years a Congress and Campout has been held every year (bar one) since 1904. Since 2003 BA has hosted regular biennial ornithological conferences.
Birds Australia is the country''s oldest national conservation organisation and can boast its oldest scientific journal. As Australia''s only truly national organisation dedicated to the study, conservation and enjoyment of native birds and their habitats, it is justly proud of its motto: ''Conservation through Knowledge''.