Shifting Baseline Syndrome

A phenomenon that has been extensively researched in recent years is the ‘shifting baseline syndrome’. The phenomenon describes the occurrence of lowered expectations, whereby each generation regards a progressively poorer natural world as normal. This shift in expectations occurs due to a lack of experience, memory or knowledge of the former condition of the natural world. Without information about past environmental conditions, current generations cannot perceive how much their environment has changed over the years, since they are comparing it to their own baseline and not to historical baselines.

For Anneke, who works with historical collections, this is not only about diving into the past; she also wants to find links between historical events and recent developments and insights. “I hope the objects I have selected for this exhibition will help reveal how the beautiful and very informative material in WUR Special Collections can nourish our collective memory and provide ideas for current research,” she says. “A historical perspective can provide important input for more effective and well-considered decision-making in nature management, nature conservation and the development of ecological insights.”

Anneke Chef's special: A Tast of the Collections

To illustrate this, she has chosen a number historical key works in the field of Dutch ornithology.
“In my opinion, these examples reveal one of the most important roles of WUR Special Collections: the collective historical memory,” Anneke continues. “This historical memory is the main reason why ‘I do what I love and love what I do’ as curator of this collection. My ambition is to continue to propagate the historical richness of nature and ensure that our knowledge about this richness is not lost, and to share this information with all the students and researchers here at WUR, who hopefully can use it as input for their research.”

“The eggs are as delicious as those of the lapwing and the godwit itself is a delicacy”

De Eijeren zyn zoo goed als die der Kievit, en de GRUTTO’S zelf zyn eene lekkerny. In English: ‘The eggs are as delicious as those of the lapwing and the godwit itself is a delicacy.’ From: Nederlandsche vogelen volgens hunne huishouding, aert en eigenschappen beschreeven / Cornelis Nozeman 1720-1786, Christiaan Sepp ca. 1720-1775, en anderen. Print Book, 1770-1829, gedrukt te Amsterdam, gedrukt door Jan Christiaan Sepp, 1770-1829.
The digital version of this book is available at the Koninklijke Bibliotheek.

Until 1750, the field of natural history in the Netherlands was mainly concerned with nature in the overseas territories, the Dutch colonies. From 1750 onwards, however, more attention was given to nature in the Netherlands. Pastor Nozeman, a naturalist with a great interest in birds, joined forces with the publisher Christiaan Sepp, who himself was also a great nature lover and expert. In 1770, they jointly published the first issue of Nederlandsche Vogelen (‘The Birds of the Netherlands’), a loose-leaf publication that described the breeding birds of the Netherlands and Belgium.

More than 200 bird species would eventually be described in the five separately bound volumes. The publications did not only include exceptionally beautiful illustrations, but also described the habitats, feeding habits and behaviour of the birds in great detail. 

“De Eijeren zyn zoo goed als die der Kievit, en de GRUTTO’S zelf zyn eene lekkerny.”
Title page of Nederlandsche Vogelen

Nozeman headed into the wilds himself to observe the birds and also paid careful attention to their nests and eggs. This close attention to nests and eggs was not without reason: according to Nozeman, the nests proved that the birds were native to the Netherlands. He also described how humans could benefit from these birds. Unlike later periods in natural science, at the time, nature was still considered to be subservient to humankind. And so he provided detailed instructions on how to control bird species that were considered to cause a nuisance, and also regularly mentioned how a particular bird and its eggs taste. See for example the description of the godwit: ‘The eggs are as delicious as those of the lapwing and the godwit itself is a delicacy.’ 

De vogels van Nederland

De vogels van Nederland, Schlegel (Hermann), 1804-1884, Leyden, [pref. 1858] Los deel met beschrijving en twee delen met (ingeplakte) platen.

Source: De vogels van Nederland / Hermann Schlegel. The dune habitat with illustrations of bird species such as the stone curlew, crested lark and tawny pipit that are now extremely rare in the Netherlands. (photos in the Schlegel brochure)

From: De vogels van Nederland / H Schlegel, 2e herz. dr in Natuurlijke historie van Nederland, Amsterdam, Funke, 1878.

There is also a second version of this book with separate sheets with description and two sheets with illustrations (pasted in).

Hermann Schlegel’s book also includes a number of plates of different landscape types with the bird species commonly found in each landscape. Whereas Sepp and Nozeman’s description of bird species in Nederlandsche Vogelen was still very human-oriented, Schlegel’s overview of the birds of the Netherlands focussed on the bird in relation to its habitat. His work amounts to a clear description of the state of avifauna in the middle of the 19th century and includes detailed descriptions and drawings of the birds’ habitats. Schlegel has therefore also been described as an ‘ecologist avant la lettre’.

Schlegel saw humans mainly as a threat to birdlife. He was very concerned about the rapid changes occurring in the Dutch landscape as a result of large-scale redevelopment and ongoing industrialisation. These man-made changes to the landscape were (and are still!) mostly detrimental to nature and the plants and animals living in it. Schlegel was saddened by this development, and at one point ruefully wrote:

“We leave it to the reader’s imagination to conclude from these few facts what the state of birdlife must have been like when our country was still sparsely populated and its surface still little changed by engineers and exposed to the incessant elements acting on such a large scale.”

Two of the so-called ‘head pages’ in Schlegel’s De Vogels van Nederland with illustrations of the heads and sometimes also a leg of various bird species. The pages displayed here depict the black-tailed godwit and the stone curlew.

Grutto. Een van de zogenaamde “koppenpagina’s” uit De Vogels van Nederland van Schlegel
Griel. Een van de zogenaamde “koppenpagina’s” uit De Vogels van Nederland van Schlegel

The cuckoo

De koekoek

The cuckoo, in the second volume of Onze vogels in huis en tuin / Johannes Gerardus Keulemans. Leiden: P.W.M. Trap, 1869-1876. See the digital version at Biodiversity Heritage Library.

In addition to native bird species, the three-volume work Onze vogels in huis en tuin (‘Our birds of the home and garden’), written and illustrated by J.G. Keulemans, describes a large number of aviary birds and fancy pigeons and poultry. Keulemans’ descriptions, like those in Sep and Nozeman’s Nederlandsche Vogelen, are very people-oriented. For example, many of the descriptions describe how to catch a particular bird species and how best to care for them in captivity. Nevertheless, this book also contains important information about the natural history of birds, such as the ranges of various species. Keulemans was a true nature expert and also took to the field to observe birds himself. His field observations of the cuckoo, for example, which amount to no less than thirteen pages, provide an excellent insight into the habitat and occurrence of this species in the Netherlands in the first half of the nineteenth century.

The following quote from the description reveals that it was not always only a matter of observing (and is entirely in the spirit of the times):

“Many people do not believe that the female cuckoo lays her egg on the ground and then takes it in her mouth to bring it to some previously found nest. And yet this has often been observed, and I myself have shot a cuckoo female, who had a broken egg in her mouth (in any case it was broken when I came upon the dead bird; apparently broken when the bird was killed, or by the shot itself).”

A stone curlew near its nest

Source: Het vogeljaar. Nederlandsche vogels in hun leven geschetst / Jac. P. Thijsse, Amsterdam: W. Versluys, 1913, 2e dr.

The renowned bird and nature photographer Alphonse Burdet, a good friend of Thijsse, took this photo of a stone curlew near Bloemendaal that was included in the second edition of Het Vogeljaar (‘Birds throughout the year’).

Jac. P. Thijsse’s extensive writings on his observations of birds, with their detailed descriptions and sometimes lyrical use of language, are unparalleled. One of the birds that Thijsse wrote about in great detail in the second edition of Het Vogeljaar was the stone curlew. Already a scarce breeding bird in the early twentieth century Netherlands, it used to breed in the dunes near Bloemendaal, nearby Thijsse’s house.

Thijsse wrote the following about the stone curlew in 1904: “This is actually a very rare bird in our country, and it may well become extinct here within fifteen years, as it cannot exist without wild dunes or heathlands. In our country, it breeds only in the dunes and perhaps also in the moors and heathlands of Brabant.” 

Although the stone curlew endured a little over fifteen years, Thijsse’s prediction was unfortunately correct. Fifty years later, in 1958, the stone curlew was removed from the list of breeding birds in the Netherlands. In that year, the last nest was found in the dunes of De Zilk, near Vogelenzang. 


Een griel bij het nest

Black-tailed godwits with chick

Grutto’s met jong

Source: Ornithologia Neerlandica: de vogels van Nederland / Eduard Daniel van Oort, Gerrit Anton Brouwer, geïllustreerd door Marinus Adrianus Koekkoek. ‘s-Gravenhage: Nijhoff, 1922-1935. Available online at the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

The Ornithologia Neerlandica De Vogels van Nederland – is a work of five volumes. It was written by Prof. E.D. van Oort (1876-1933) and illustrated by M.A. Koekkoek (1873-1944). It was published between 1922 and 1935. The text of the final volume was completed by G.A. Brouwer (1898-1981). 

Van Oort was one of the founders of the Dutch Ornithological Society, in 1901, and has contributed much to the knowledge of birds, in particular their migratory habits. He established the practice of ringing birds in the Netherlands, thereby contributing to the knowledge of the distribution of bird species. He also published several lists of bird species that occur in the Netherlands.

Make the puzzle of the black-tailed godwits

Counts of waders near Dronten (1973)

Telling van weidevogelsoorten bij Dronten (1973)

Map displaying counts of waders (black-tailed godwit, lapwing, ruff and redshank) in the Kievitslanden wader reserve near Dronten in the spring of 1973. Created by J. Rooth, scale 1:2500, original format 65x75cm. Printed copy.

This map depicting bird counts in the Kievitslanden bird reserve was included with a research report by L. Stockmann, published in 1978, into the use of the reserve by waders: “De Kievitslanden” en naaste omgeving in Oostelijk Flevoland: werkdocument, Lelystad: R.IJ.P., 1978. – 110 p.

Stockmann studied the use of the Kievitslanden reserve by waders, in particular the lapwing and the black-tailed godwit. He examined which factors influenced the occurrence of waders and their breeding success in the reserve. Such research can serve as an historical benchmark (baseline) for modern research into these birds.

Shifting Baseline Syndrome

is part of

Chef’s Special: A Taste of the Collections

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