Niko's Nature: The Life of Niko Tinbergen and His Science of Animal Behaviour

Niko's Nature: The Life of Niko Tinbergen and His Science of Animal Behaviour

Niko's Nature: The Life of Niko Tinbergen and His Science of Animal Behaviour

Niko's Nature: The Life of Niko Tinbergen and His Science of Animal Behaviour


A charismatic naturalist, bird-watcher, teacher, artist, photographer, film-maker, and winner of the Nobel Prize, Niko Tinbergen was a prominent and influential scientist. Jointly with Konrad Lorenz, he laid the foundation for a new science, the biological study of animal behaviour. 'Ethology', and his talent for devising behaviour-testing experiments, provided an outlet for Niko's enthusiasm for gulls and sticklebacks, snow-buntings and foxes, wasps and falcons, and even children. This first full-length biography of Niko Tinbergen, lavishly illustrated with many of Niko's own drawings, describes his background in Holland, a naturalists' paradise, and the beginnings of his investigations into the behaviour of birds, fish, and insects. Hans Kruuk also explores is Niko's relationship with his colleague and co-Nobelist Konrad Lorenz. These were two men full of contrasts: Niko a charming, self-effacing field man and experimenter; Konrad a flamboyant and egocentric German, always full of new ideas. Niko's Nature goes on to follow Niko's progress in Oxford after the Second World War, where he became the world authority on the behaviour of animals in the wild: his inspiring book The Study of Instinct remains an all-time classic. As a scientist Niko will always be known for the four fundamentally different ways in which he asked the question 'why does an animal do this?' These questions, about physiology, development, evolution, and function, became known as 'Tinbergen's four whys'. But Niko's successes came at a price - severe and devastating depressions that were to plague him throughout his career. In this fascinating and engaging story, Niko's long-time friend and student Hans Kruuk argues that his impact as a scientist and naturalist was in large part due to his skills as a communicator, photographer, and film-maker. Niko's Nature is an intimate and insightful portrait of an extraordinary figure.


Over the autumnal reds and yellows of dwarf shrubs I was looking at an overwhelming backdrop of glacier. Snow buntings came close, there was a lake with white-fronted geese, and a reindeer disappeared over the hillside. There were no people within many miles. Greenland is magnificent, gigantic, and awesome.

Seventy years earlier Niko and Lies Tinbergen had lived there, for a year. the grandeur of the country, and the Inuit views of life deeply affected Niko, scientist and naturalist. Greenland showed him what wilderness really was, and made him realize that he was a hunter at heart. the Inuit people, closer to nature than he was, made him view animals as objects, as machines, which are part of their environment, not separated from it. Niko’s later ability to study animals as machines that had evolved in their own context and environment was vital for his development of the study of animal behaviour, ethology.

Experiments with free-living, wild birds, without disturbing them, were one of Niko’s innovations which now seem commonplace. At the time when he began this, however, in the 1930s and 1940s, the idea rocked the world of animal behaviour studies. It was one of his simple approaches that built up a new branch of science, for which many years later he would be rewarded with the Nobel Prize.

Some forty years after I started as one of Niko’s students, studying gulls in the dunes of north-west England, I met Marian Dawkins, Professor of Animal Behaviour, on the stairs in the Zoology Department in Oxford. She was also one of Niko’s disciples, and we exchanged some reminiscence of the good old days. ‘Isn’t it sad’, she said, looking at me, ‘that no-one has ever written a biography of him?’

The story of Niko Tinbergen is a fascinating one. He grew up in Holland, as a fanatic naturalist from his earliest years onwards, and as an athlete. He came from a highly motivated intellectual background: his eldest brother was to receive a Nobel Prize before Niko did – and two in one family is still a record. There was his magical year in Greenland, his period as a hostage of the German occupation of Holland in the Second World War, his emigration to England. and there was his extraordinary friendship with Konrad Lorenz, which led to the establishment of ethology.

To Niko’s enthusiastic group of students in Oxford he was ‘The Maestro’, who wrote the book that established ethology as a science: The study of instinct. He also wrote many others, made prize-winning films, and his bird photography and drawings were legendary. For scientists, Niko’s main contribution lay in his clear . . .

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