When, just before WWII, the Dutch merchant Gerard van den Brink bought the mansion, including the estate ‘Ten Rhijn’, in the small town of Alphen aan den Rijn, located close to the river ‘Oude Rijn’ in the province Zuid-Holland, nobody could have expected that this would lead to the creation of the first zoo in the Netherlands dedicated to birds only. Gerard van den Brink was a successful entrepreneur in the millinery business, who owned several shops. His son, Gerard junior, would eventually follow his father’s footsteps, but being a bird lover he kept some birds as a hobby.
In 1942, however, during WWII the family had to leave the mansion and the estate by order of the German occupiers. When they returned after the war only three trees of the original wooded park had survived the devastating period. These three trees still exist to date.
Gerard jr took up his former hobby after they returned to their estate in 1945, starting with a few aviaries at the edge of the park. The first birds in the collection were exotic white woodpeckers (Melanerpes candidus) that might have originated from Suriname — at the time still part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Gerard sr liked the birds very much and joined his son’s hobby by investing in features such as a rose garden, ponds and bridges to introduce characteristics of a park on the rather bare estate. Father and son were passionate about their private endeavour, which was absolutely not intended to turn into a public bird park.
Nevertheless, while the family increased their bird collections, including exotic species, the sounds of those birds made the citizens of Alphen aan den Rijn curious. To satisfy this curiosity and at the same time give the people of this Christian municipality an alternative to their Sunday stroll, the mayor asked Van den Brink for once to open the estate to the villagers, in August 1949. In large numbers they came to explore the park and gardens, and their enthusiasm eventually led to a second public opening. Being a genuine businessman, Van den Brink realised that he could make some money when asking an entrance fee. Thus it was decided to make the estate an official bird park and Avifauna, the world’s first bird park ever opened its gate to the public on 17 May 1950.
The first year turnstile numbers were as high as 500,000, but already a few years later the Van den Brink family wasn’t able to maintain the park any more, on the verge of bankruptcy. The hobby of Gerard van den Brink got out of hand, literally. So Avifauna Bird Park was about to be closed. Fortunately, the town council of Alphen aan den Rijn stepped in, but wasn’t able to make the park profitable too. With a loss of 200,000 Dutch guilders they started to look for a new owner. The town council wanted the bird park to be a visitor’s attraction again, bringing tourists to the town, but foremost they didn’t want to lose any more money.
How it started
Footage of the early days of the bird park, including Gerard van den Brink jr reminiscing about how it all began … (in Dutch)
Fortunately, already in 1956 a new family, a family business to be correct, was found willing to invest in the enterprise and take over ownership and management. This Van der Valk family — well-known for the many hotels and motorway restaurants they ran in the Netherlands and beyond — bought the bird park on leasehold from the municipality with a symbolic annual fee of 1 Dutch guilder.
Apparently the Van der Valk family was one of nature lovers and were prepared to invest in the bird park. They even decided to adopt the toco toucan (Ramphastos toco) that was used to adorn the posters of the initial opening of the park in 1950 as a logo for their family business. A logo that has identified the Van der Valk hotels and restaurants ever since, and is therefore familiar to every Dutchman.
The Van der Valk family extended the park and its children’s playground, while they added a hotel and a restaurant as well for obvious reasons. Further to this several replicas of well-known Dutch buildings were introduced on the premises, such as the ‘waterpoort’ of Sneek in Friesland, a province in the north. Van der Valk together with some masons travelled to Sneek to see the ‘waterpoort’ for themselves and take pictures. Construction drawings were requested, bricks were bought from old farms, and they even baked bricks in Avifauna themselves, to build the replica on scale. The ‘waterpoort’ of Sneek is still an eye-catching building right after the entrance to date. Later, an indoors family entertainment centre was added and a shipping company was founded (Rederij Avifauna) that offered boat trips on the river, canals and lakes near Alphen aan den Rijn.
In the early days the bird collection comprised the usual suspects that were specifically attractive to the general public — colourful species that didn’t require too complicated care and management. In the 1960s they started breeding endangered bird species. The first was the white stork (Ciconia ciconia) — at the time just about 12 white stork breeding pairs exist in the wild in the Netherlands. Other captive breeding successes followed, such as with several crane species, Double-wattled cassowary (Casuarius casuarius), Great white pelican (Pelecanus onocrotalus), and hornbills (Bucerotidae).
One of the highlights within the range of new buildings that were established in the 60s and 70s was the ‘Martinushal’, a tropical hall that enabled the possibility to keep tropical bird species in the cold climate of the Netherlands.
After the 70s there was a standstill in the park’s development, no new species were added to the collection and Avifauna wasn’t a real bird park any more — primates, lamas, kangaroos, zebras and other mammalian species were found to be part of the collection in those days. Therefore, in the 1990s, it was decided that birds should be the main attraction again as to honour the name of the park.
A masterplan was developed which had its official start on 17 May 2000 when Avifauna celebrated its 50th anniversary. Old-fashioned small aviaries were turned into large and modern enclosures holding species in a more natural environment with specific biotopes and habitats in walk-through exhibits such as the Lori Landing, Tropical Hall and Madagascar Area. Furthermore, the size of many groups of birds was expanded. With a new masterplan presented to the town council in 2012 the Avifauna management showed they needed and wanted to continuously change and improve their park. Not only to provide the animals with the best conditions according the newest insights on keeping animals in captivity, but also to increase the visitor numbers. The envisaged future of the park contains an enormous hall (16,000 m2) to attract visitors during all seasons and all types of weather. But it has to be said, again mammalian species have been introduced to provide a more diverse experience with red panda, various lemur species and small New World monkeys. The latter have been reintroduced in 2014 and are now on display in the new Nuboso exhibit that opened in 2016. Further introductions of other mammal species are envisaged for the future. In a still to develop Australian biotope Avifauna wants to keep koala, as the first zoo in the Netherlands. Additionally, there are ideas to have giant otter and giant anteater on display in a South American area that is planned. These species should double the number of visitors. So, Avifauna is not just a bird park any more, and will become more of a regular zoo focussed on bird species.
Like any modern self-respecting zoo Avifauna is engaged in breeding programmes for endangered species, conservation activities in the wild and education programmes for school children, while offering entertainment and education via for instance free flight demonstrations. The efforts of Avifauna trying to protect bird species from going extinct is inter alia caused by people who source these species from the wild for making medicinal products (of which the effect is non-existent) or selling them to ignorant persons that just want to possess rare and expensive birds. Thirty of exactly such species were stolen from the premises on the night of 16 September 2014.
Until 2012 Avifauna was owned by the Van der Valk family. But in 2012 it became officially a not-for-profit foundation which ensures that all revenues will benefit the birds in the park and in the wild. One objective of the foundation is to prevent further extinction of bird species worldwide. Van der Valk still provides the catering though, throughout the park and is the main sponsor of Avifauna.
The former mansion where the Van den Brink family lived in still exists, although now it features the a-la-carte-restaurant of the bird park. A few other characteristics of the original park have remained — the line of trees near the entrance, the pond at the park restaurant and there are still a few pelicans around that swam in the park ponds on opening day.
(Source: website Avifauna; website Van der Valk Avifauna; website tivi producties; website Van der Valk; Wikipedia; website newspaper Algemeen Dagblad)