Female ornithologists in the Netherlands

By Caspar Beckers, Junior Researcher at the Center Connecting Humans and Nature, Institute for Science in Society, Radboud University

Klik hier voor de Nederlandse versie

The world of (amateur-)ornithology feels like it was and is a man’s world. Men armed with binoculars follow birds wherever they can find them. This is no different for ornithology in The Netherlands. But if you look closely, it is possible to spot some women amongst those men. Some had a large impact on (local) birdwatching studies. One such important female ornithologist was at the heart of the Bird Study Group of the Amsterdam Forest. This will be a short story about Jacobien (Bien) van Drooge, an amateur ornithologist living in Amsterdam.

Bien van Drooge together with Piet Brander on a bench in the Amsterdam Forest. (R. Vlek. (2014). Verhuizing van het Vogelwerkgroep-archief. De Gierzwaluw, 52(4), 12–13.)

Bien was born in 1907 in a typical Dutch town surrounded by water and nature. She enjoyed the quiet environment, but her interest did not initially extend beyond that. She pursued a law degree, being one of the few female students of that time. Whether due to the economic crisis in the 1930s or her being a woman, however, she struggled to find work as a lawyer. Instead, she became a secretary for the KLM (Royal Dutch Airlines) board instead. For the next 35 years, she cycled through the newly created Amsterdam Forest almost every day, and enjoyed the ride through nature. At the age of 46, when she saw a movie about the Amsterdam Forest, she decided to join excursions and to pick up nature study as a hobby.

It was on one of these excursions that she met the forester Piet Brander in person. A dedicated birdwatcher, he helped her with visual identification and especially with listening to birdsongs. He was both knowledgeable and thorough, but lacked the time to systematise his data, and the skill to put his ideas and research on paper. Bien started to help him, eventually typing out all the quarterly observations of birds in the Amsterdam Forest.

They became a powerful duo, founding the Bird Study Group Amsterdam Forest (later it became the Bird Study Group Amsterdam), coordinated by Piet as chairman and Bien as secretary. Bien was also the editor of the group’s newsletter. After World War II, Piet entrusted his observations from before the war to her. She archived these observations in combination with her work for the study group. It was because of her work that the conclusions of 30 years of bird studies in the Amsterdam Forest could be published, putting the forest on the radar for all Dutch ornithologists.

But Bien was more than just an accurate and hardworking secretary. She was a great field ornithologist herself. She could identify birds as easily with her binoculars as by their song. She observed a lot of birds and helped with many inventories. She even organised the inventories of the Amsterdam city parks. Even though she was an outstanding field ornithologist and one of the most important people of the study group, making several bird watching trips throughout Europe and once even to the United States, she was never asked to join the more prestigious ‘Club of Dutch Birders’, possibly because of her gender.

Just as she learned how to look and listen for birds from Piet, so in turn she passed her knowledge on to new young ornithologists. She was always happy to share her binoculars and help others with identifying birds. These young men never dared to call her Bien; she was always miss Van Drooge to them. She rightfully earned this respect, since she helped everyone with the study of birds. She felt strongly that bird study was a hobby for all. Later in life, she fondly recalled how in watching birds everyone, from teacher to baker, to lawyer to psychiatrist, was equal.

Bien van Drooge was a remarkable amateur ornithologist who was of great significance for the study of birds, especially in the Amsterdam Forest.

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  • P.W. Brander. (1977). Een stukje historie en voorhistorie van de VWG. Mededelingenblad Vogelwerkgroep Amsterdam, 15(1), 17–19.

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