The collection of birds under the care of the Smithsonian Institution was begun in 1850, when Spencer F. Baird, the newly appointed Assistant Secretary, came to the Institution and brought with him his collection of over 3600 birds. However, the Department of Ornithology, the predecessor of the present Division of Birds, was not established until 1880 when a general reorganization of the United States National Museum took place. In 1885, the name was changed to the Department of Birds. In 1897 the National Museum was reorganized into three departments: Biology, Geology, and Anthropology, with Birds as a Division of the Department of Biology. In 1950 another administrative reorganization took place in the National Museum. As part of the reorganization, the Department of Biology was split into Departments of Botany and Zoology, with Birds becoming a Division of the Department of Zoology. In 1964 the Department of Zoology was divided into three departments: Vertebrate Zoology, Invertebrate Zoology, and Entomology, with Birds a Division of the Department of Vertebrate Zoology.
Robert Ridgway (1850-1929), the first Curator of the Division of Birds, came to the Smithsonian in 1874 as an "Ornithologist" on the staff of the United States National Museum. In 1880 he was appointed Curator of the Department of Ornithology. Ridgway remained Curator until his death in 1929, although after 1915 he resided in Olney, Illinois.
Charles Wallace Richmond (1868-1932) joined the staff of the Division of Birds in the early 1890's as an "assistant to the scientific staff." In 1894 he was appointed Assistant Curator, and in 1918 Associate Curator, as which he was virtually in charge of the activities of the Division. In 1929 he was appointed Curator, but in the same year, at his own suggestion, was reappointed Associate Curator to allow for the appointment of Herbert Friedmann (1900- ) as Curator. In 1957, as part of an administrative reorganization of the United States National Museum, Friedmann was appointed Acting Head Curator of the Department of Zoology, while retaining his position as Curator of the Division of Birds. In 1958 Friedmann was appointed Head Curator of the Department of Zoology, and became Acting Curator of the Division of Birds.