Bird was born in Wolverhampton, England, but from age four lived in the town of Kidderminster, near Birmingham. He attended a grammar school in Hartlebury, achieving grades CCD for his A-level results. Whilst at school Bird played cricket and hockey for a local team. Bird received his PhD from the University of Edinburgh in 1970, following undergraduate study of Biochemistry at the University of Sussex.
Following his PhD, Bird went on to postdoctoral research positions, first at Yale University with Joseph G. Gall, and then at the University of Zurich before returning to Edinburgh in 1975 to work at the MRC Mammalian Genome Unit, where he would stay for 11 years. It was here that Bird, along with Edwin Southern, mapped the methylation status of CpG dinucleotides along ribosomal RNA in the African clawed frog. From 1987 to 1990 Bird continued his research at the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology in Vienna.
In 1990, Adrian Bird became Buchanan Professor of Genetics at the University of Edinburgh. He helped create the Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell Biology, also in Edinburgh, and served as its director from 1999 until 2011, when he was succeeded by David Tollervey. From 2000 to 2010, he was also a governor of the Wellcome Trust, serving as deputy chairman during the latter three years.
Adrian Bird's research has focused on CpG islands and their associated binding-factor MeCP2. He led the team which first identified CpG islands—originally named "HpaII tiny fragments"—in vertebrate genomes. These are short genomic regions with a high density of CpG dinucleotides, and are commonly found in an unmethylated state within or nearby to an active gene's promoter.
Bird's group discovered that the MeCP2 protein binds specifically to methylated CpG sites, and further that disruption of this interaction causes the autism spectrum disorder Rett syndrome. The Bird lab also implicated nuclear receptor co-repressor 1 as an important binding partner in the MeCP2/methyl-CpG interaction.
In 2007 the Bird laboratory published a paper in the journal Science describing a proof-of-principle that the murine equivalent of Rett syndrome could be successfully reversed in laboratory mice. This was accomplished by reintroducing a functional MeCP2 gene and proved successful even when the condition was at an advanced stage, hinting at the possibility of a gene therapy approach to curing the human disease in the future.
Bird has received a number of awards, such as the 2011 Gairdner Foundation International Award and 2012 Royal Society GlaxoSmithKline Prize, and he was knighted in the 2014 New Year Honours list. In 2013, he was named a Thomson Reuters Citation Laureate.
Bird was awarded the Gabor Medal in 1999 "in recognition of his pioneering work in the study of global mechanisms by which transcription of the mammalian genome is regulated and for his exploration into the molecular basis of fundamental biological mechanisms, particularly his development of ways of analysing methylation patterns of eukaryotic DNA using endonucleases and the discovery of and continued research into a new class of DNA sequences found in all vertebrates". He received the Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine in the same year, and was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the Queen's Birthday Honours in 2005. In 2011 he was a recipient of the Gairdner Foundation International Award, "for his pioneering discoveries on DNA methylation and its role in gene expression." The following year Bird won the 2012 GlaxoSmithKline Prize.
In 2013, Bird was tipped as a potential winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for "fundamental discoveries concerning DNA methylation and gene expression" though the prize later went to James Rothman, Randy Schekman and Thomas C. Südhof. He was knighted in the 2014 New Year Honours for services to science. Bird received the 2013 BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Biomedicine "for his discoveries in the field of epigenetics". Bird was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1989, his nomination reads:
In 2016 he was elected as a foreign associate of the National Academy of Sciences. Also in 2016 he received the Shaw Prize together with Huda Y. Zoghbi. In 2017 Bird will receive the Charles Rudolphe Brupbacher Prize.
Bird is a trustee of the charitable organisation Cancer Research UK and of the Rett Syndrome Research Trust. He also serves as a Governance Board Member of the Edinburgh Cancer Research Centre.
Adrian Bird is married to fellow geneticist Cathy Abbott and has four children. At age 66, Bird was quoted as having no plans to retire, saying "we [the research group] are still funded well and our work is still published in journals and as long as that continues, so will I."