A History of the BOC

The British Ornithologists’ Club was founded at a meeting of the British Ornithologists’ Union (BOU) in London on 5th October 1892. The aim of the Club was to enable members of the BOU to meet regularly for discussion, giving opportunities for papers to be presented and specimens to be exhibited. The original subscription of the BOC was five shillings per annum (25 pence) and membership was restricted to members of the BOU. Dr P. L. Sclater, Secretary of the Zoological Society of London, was appointed Chairman and Dr R. Bowdler Sharpe, Curator of Birds at the British Museum (Natural History), was appointed Editor of a new journal, the Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club, in which abstracts of proceedings were published.

Meetings were held monthly from October to June in London. Specimens, often new species, were exhibited and described, topics in scientific ornithology, particularly taxonomy, reports of expeditions and new publications – all of world-wide interest – were discussed and reported in the Bulletin. The Bulletin was born in order to give authors of new species or subspecies an easy source of immediate publication to forestall rivals, and to become the official ‘first author’, with the right to have their name attached to a bird forever, since priority depended on date of publication. This policy continues to the present day, as is mentioned in the instructions to authors.

In 1952, under the editorship of Dr J.G. Harrison, the content of the Bulletin changed from the publication of the proceedings of meetings to publishing invited contributions, short papers particularly on taxonomy and nomenclature, on distribution and descriptions of new forms. Although the presentation of new species to members is no longer a feature of meetings, the Bulletin remains today a journal in which new species are described. The format of meetings, a supper followed by a talk on some aspect of ornithology, has been followed almost without a break until very recently. An overseas meeting was held in New Zealand in December 1990, the Club’s first century was celebrated with a special dinner held in November 1992, and the 900th meeting of the Club was held on 4 April 2001.

From its inception the Club has been concerned with research and can claim to have set up some of the earliest conservation schemes, e.g. the first attempt to conserve the Red Kite in Wales where numbers had dropped to just 4 or 5 adults in 1905. The Club also instigated in 1904 what has been described as one of the first pieces of co-operative research in ornithology, the collection of data on bird migration in the UK over eight years, publishing the results in nine Migration Reports, between 1906 and 1913.

The Club made visits to the Sub-department of Ornithology of The Natural History Museum and the Rothschild Library at Tring in May 1994, to the Gilbert White Museum at Selborne in 1996 and to the Charles Darwin Museum at Down House in Kent in June 1999. A symposium with a panel of international speakers, “Avian Taxonomy from Linnaeus to DNA”, was held jointly with the Linnaean Society of London in March 1996. In November 1999 the Club was joint organiser with the BOU, The Natural History Museum (NHM) and BirdLife International, of a three-day conference “Why Museums Matter: Avian Archives in an Age of Extinction”. In 2004 the Club held a meeting on “Recent Avian Extinctions” at the Linnean Society in London. Now, after a gap of some years, the Club is again organising joint meetings with other organisations. In October 2011 there was a meeting at the NHM, co-organised with the Neotropical Bird Club and the NHM, on “Birds of South and Middle America – recent advances in knowledge”. The Club and the Linnean Society of London are supporting the NHM and the South London Botanical Institute in organising a meeting on “Indian Ornithology, British Botany and Allan Octavian Hume (1829-1912): the Scientific Legacy of a Founder of the Indian National Congress” in October 2012 at the NHM. A joint meeting with the African Bird Club and the NHM is planned for April 2013.

Since 1992, the Club has broadened its publications. To mark the Centenary, a collection of 19 specially commissioned articles (Avian Systematics and Taxonomy edited by Dr J.F. Monk) was published as a special issue of the Bulletin (Bull. BOC 112A). The unbroken publication of the Bulletin was commemorated with an anthology, Birds, Discovery and Conservation, edited by Dr D.W. Snow, published in 1992 in association with Helm Information.

A generous bequest to the Club led to the establishment of the Herbert Stevens Trust Fund in 1992, and the income generated from this Fund has been used to publish the BOC Occasional Publications, a series of monographs concerned with taxonomy and systematics. The first of the series,Extinct and Endangered Birds in the collections of The Natural History Museum, was launched in the Centenary year; others have followed:

  • Manuscripts and Drawings in the Ornithology and Rothschild Libraries of The Natural History Museum at Tring;
  • Avian Egg-shells: an Atlas of Scanning Electron Micrographs;
  • Type Specimens of Bird Skins in the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, United Kingdom,
  • Systematic Notes on Asian Birds 2010 published in conjunction with the Trust for Oriental Ornithology.

More titles are planned. In 2005 the Club published The Bird Atlas of Uganda.The establishment of the Joint Publications Committee with the BOU has assisted in the production of the BOU’s Checklist Series, with financial support from the Club.

Membership of the Club, as from the earliest days, is international and overseas members continue to form almost half the number. Membership of the Club is no longer restricted to members of the BOU. In 2011 the format of the evening meetings changed. The proceedings begin at 6.00 pm with a talk, usually by a speaker with an international reputation, on current ornithological work, exploration, conservation or collections. This is followed by informal conversation and a light buffet supper for those who wish. Meetings are free and open to all, not just BOC members. Further changes to the evening meeting arrangements are planned for 2013.