The RSPB has over 1,300 employees, 18,000 volunteers and more than a million members (including 195,000 youth members), making it the largest wildlife conservation charity in Europe. The RSPB has many local groups and maintains 200 nature reserves.
The Plumage League was founded in 1889 by Emily Williamson at her house in Didsbury, Manchester, (now in Fletcher Moss Botanical Garden), as a protest group campaigning against the use of great crested grebe and kittiwake skins and feathers in fur clothing. The group gained popularity and eventually amalgamated with the Fur and Feather League in Croydon to form the Society for the Protection of Birds. The Society gained its Royal Charter in 1904.
The original members of the RSPB were all women who campaigned against the fashion of the time for women to wear exotic feathers in hats, and the consequent encouragement of "plume hunting". To this end the Society had two simple rules:
At the time of founding, the trade in plumage for use in hats was very large: in the first quarter of 1884, almost 7,000 bird-of-paradise skins were being imported to Britain, along with 400,000 birds from West India and Brazil, and 360,000 birds from East India.
The Society attracted support from some women of high social standing who belonged to the social classes that popularised the wearing of feathered hats, including the Duchess of Portland (who became the Society's first President) and the Ranee of Sarawak. As the organisation began to attract the support of many other influential figures, both male and female, such as the ornithologist Professor Alfred Newton, it gained in popularity and attracted many new members. The society received a Royal Charter in 1904 from Edward VII, just 15 years after its founding, and was instrumental in petitioning the Parliament of the United Kingdom to introduce laws banning the use of plumage in clothing.
At the time that the Society was founded in Britain, similar societies were also founded in other European countries. In 1961, the society acquired The Lodge in Sandy, Bedfordshire as its new headquarters. The RSPB's logo depicts an Avocet. The first version was designed by Robert Gillmor.
Today, the RSPB works with both the civil service and the Government to advise Government policies on conservation and environmentalism. It is one of several organisations that determine the official conservation status list for all birds found in the UK.