Top image: Razzle-Dazzle Hides, by Nicholson Bastik, with Charlie MacKeith, image by Stuart Bastik

The final design of the Razzle-Dazzle Hides, by Art Gene and its associate Research Design Architecture, references Niko Tinbergen (1907 – 1988) and his Nobel Prize winning research with gull colonies on South Walney Nature Reserve.

Image above: Niko Tinbergen with his self-portrait.
Photo: Larry Shaffer, Walney, 1969
Courtesy of the Tinbergen family

Niko Tinbergen

Professor Tinbergen was a Dutch biologist and ornithologist who shared the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Karl von Frisch and Konrad Lorenz for their discoveries concerning organisation and elicitation of individual and social behaviour patterns in animals.

Several of Tinbergen’s Oxford graduate students went on to become prominent biologists. These include Richard Dawkins, Marian Dawkins, Desmond Morris and Iain Douglas Hamilton.

Supernatural Stimuli

A major body of Tinbergen’s research focused on what he termed ‘supernormal stimuli.’ This was the concept that once could build an artificial object which was a stronger stimulus or releaser for an instinct than the object for which the instinct originally evolved. He constructed plaster eggs to see which a bird preferred to sit on, finding that they would select those that were larger, had more defined markings, or more saturated colour than the bird’s own pale, dappled eggs.

In 2015, Kev Bell introduced us to the Tinbergen family and we were able to arrange a visit to the site with Gerry Carleston (Niko Tinbergen’s Daughter) who had stayed on the reserve assisting her father with his research from 1969 with the then massive gull colony on South Walney.

South Walney Artist in Residence Hannah Brackston was inspired by this history of scientific interest in the island, and both she and Art Gene reference the concept of supernormal stimuli in artworks. Find out about the South Walney Razzle Dazzle Hides designs and hear from Hannah herself discussing the origins of Sunday Afternoon Cake Club and the Shed of Curiosities. Links below.


Larry Shaffer

Larry Shaffer, one of Tinbergen’s graduate students, described taking this photograph of Tinbergen in an recent email.

“I remember very clearly taking the picture. Niko had made the self portrait sculpture during my first stay on Walney. The date of the picture would have been in late March, 1969. I took the picture with some trepidation because I had been told that Niko did not like having his picture taken. Niko made this object and set it on the mantel in the field-base so that we would know that he was watching us, as he put it, while he went back to Oxford. 

He used to come to stay on Walney for about a fortnight at a time, totalling 3 or 4 visits spaced throughout the field season. 

When Niko brought the self portrait sculpture into the cottage, I remember I took a deep breath and asked if I could take his picture with it. To my surprise he seemed delighted at the idea. For the picture, he decided to growl at it. 

He made this thing out of a piece of wood that he found on the tide-line. It is a nice illustration of his artistic skills”.

Larry Shaffer, 2015

Superstimuli Hats

“Niko Tinbergen researched his ‘super stimuli theory’ by hand painting larger than life dummy eggs with the patterns copied from gull eggs, which he offered as an alternative to the broody birds. As perhaps humans also often act when offered something that ‘looks’ bigger and better, the gulls abandoned their own eggs in favour of trying to hatch the sterile imitations. During the time that these experiments were undertaken, South Walney Nature Reserve was entirely dominated by an enormous black backed gull colony. For the duration of the nesting season, visitors were required to wear hard hats and carry sticks to defend themselves from divebombing birds. 

After the closure of the landfill site – an attempt to fill in part of the island and combat erosion – the gull colony began to shrink. There are different and debated theories for this occurrence, but for people with a relationship to South Walney, the massive gull colony remains vivid in memory. 

I was tickled by the impossible hypothesis that if visitors to South Walney today were all required to wear hardhats that depicted Niko ’ super-sized egg patterns, would gulls be drawn to nest on the island again?

My hand-painted ‘Super Stimuli Gull Egg Hard Hats’ are a way to talk about the significance of Niko Tinbergens’ work and importance of the reserve as a space for experiments  – but also acknowledge that change, discovery and loss are fundamental factors in the kind of ecosystems it hosts, within an environment siting between the natural and man-made.

These hat paintings latterly acted as a prototype study for the exterior design of the new hides developed by Art Gene.”

Hannah Brackston, 2015

Image below: Charlie MacKeith, Gerry Carleston, (Niko Tinbergen’s Daughter) Kev Bell and Stuart Bastik visiting South Walney Nature Reserve March 2015