an oologist on grief

Updated: Sep 16, 2021

March 2019

Object Biography: Notebook 2 – Nest Records

“There are deaths that are partially eclipsed and partially marked, and that instability may well activate the frame, making the frame itself unstable” (Butler, 2009: 75).

An Introduction

Wild eggs, rounded and fragile, have long been objects of human fascination. Pastel. Speckled. Feminine. Movable. These natural objects have been collected for a multitude of reasons. Some were obtained in the name of science. Others were taken as stilled beauty. But nonetheless, small holes were drilled in at the side, blown, aborted, placed on cotton, in the name of human endeavour.

The scientific collection of eggs is referred to as oology. It’s a patient study of breeding patterns whereby singular eggs, clutches or even whole nests are taken for taxonomic and ecological reasons. Historically, the practice was popular among men, hobbyists and scientists alike, in Europe during the late 18th century and the early 20th. But with time and extinction, the practice became highly regulated and illegal. Today permits and ethics are required (Waters, 2018: 7-8). Collections of wild eggs speak to a paradox of scientific cruelty for conservation.

Thus, this essay is an ecology of an oologist’s notebook but also of the birds it records. It traces the history of Notebook 2 – Nest Records which details the reproductive lives of common birds. The notebook was created by Peter Steyn as a field journal between 1961 and 1977 in Zimbabwe (Steyn, 2007: 1). In its current location, it is overshadowed by the odd-beauty of 400 eggs. This beauty is perhaps the chosen focus of many given the careful consideration of a shell and the unengaging scientific prose of notes. But within this text, there are unintentional moments of emotion - postscripts that tell stories of avian tragedy.

The content of this journal acts as a framework for studying the incoherence of grief across species and questions which lives are grievable. As such it reflects on the abstract divide between human and nonhuman, the observer and observed, the objective and emotive. This paper uses extracts from Notebook 2 as its foundation. The quoted lines, when interpreted collectively, make one interrogate the act of collection and trans-species’ emotionality. They acknowledge the uncertainty emotional responses – both within humans and animals – and as such the politics of representation and subjectivity. Ultimately, this essay is a story for those who acknowledge the danger of anthropomorphism, the shallow lives of allegorical characters, but also see it as empathetic act capable of destabilizing human exceptionalism.

Notebook 2- Nest Records

Notebook 2 - Nest Records is part of the Peter Steyn Collection at the Percy Fitzpatrick Institute of African Ornithology (PFIAO) at the University of Cape Town. It resides in the top drawer of a wooden cabinet that is locked and stained with nepheline. The drawer is shared with two other notebooks created by Steyn, the first from his youth, and the latter is focused on birds of prey. It lies beside a copy of Frank B. Smithe’s Naturalist’s Color Guide, a published article by Steyn, two printed documents, attached letters and an envelope of reference photographs. The subsequent drawers are filled with an array of labelled, blown, eggs. Pink. Blue. Burnt-copper. Speckled. Splattered.

This notebook began its life like many other index-books – empty. Made of cellulose, bleach, cotton binds, faint ink and an alphabet, the book slowly expanded. Its content is a study of oology made by a self-taught ornithologist, Peter Steyn, and its aim is scientific[1]. As such this work records common birds’ breeding patterns methodologically and describes eggs-species, colour, dimensions, nest materiality, clutch, incubation and parenting styles with an evolving scientific vocabulary. Each entry is dated, carefully evidenced and ethically included.

The entries were created between 1961 and 1977 when Steyn lived in Zimbabwe. In 1961 Steyn moved to in Esigodini, Zimbabwe (at the time, Essexvale, Rhodesia) to work as a teacher at Falcon College. Not long after, he moved to Bulawayo to pursue ornithology and photography formally. His journal makes mention of these locations and was produced in-between. Notebook 2 later moved back to Cape Town with Steyn in 1978 and remained, untouched, in his possession (Steyn, 2007: 1). In 1984, Steyn began enquiring about donating his personal collection[2] and updated his notebooks in red-ballpoint-pen. He revised taxonomy, gave reference numbers[3] to each egg within the cabinet and cancelled entries where eggs had been damaged or lost. In 2007 the notebook and its eggs moved to the PFIAO’s Niven Library where they remain today.

It’s important to note the social context of this object, its author and the study of oology. Steyn was a white-male collecting eggs during the Apartheid era. Furthermore, the study of oology and ornithology fall within the Western framework of natural science – a knowledge-system with exclusionary politics and airs of authenticated truth. Thus, this object largely speaks to a colonial form of science. It is mostly objective, evidence-based, intrusive and patriarchal. However, there are phrases within this text that tell an emotive story. Perhaps they are glimpses of an untrained scientist or a nature-lover unscripted. It’s hard to tell. For those who view birds as sentient beings, these instances become a narrative of avian life, moments of tragedy, loss and familial separation. They are a possible site of human and nonhuman animal grief.

The lines below are excerpts from individual entries in Notebook 2. They speak of the complex and ruthless reproductive lives of birds, but also the dichotomy of science and emotion – objectivity and subjectivities. They reference those who experience unacknowledged suffering and invite us to reexamine hierarchies of loss.

One egg infertile and removed

Nest later deserted

One day old chick & 1 infertile egg

Two infertile clutches

1 cuckoo which failed to hatch

Young killed by grassfire

Eggs noticed to be very small

One egg (collected) lying on ground

No living

Eggs deserted

Later deserted

Embryo still alive

Young disappeared from nest a few days later - cause not known

1 young cuckoo + 1 bulbul egg which was cracked


Eggs cold

Nest empty. Predation?

Other egg laying broken beneath nest

1 infertile egg

1 warm egg in nest, birds frantic

The parent having been caught in a trap set on the nest. Died the next day.

Egg cold with well-developed embryo

Eggs gone, cause not known

2 eggs one crushed

Chirping hard inside eggs

1 infertile egg

Nest ripped down

1 naked chick + 1 infertile

2 eggs failed to hatch

2 infertile

3rd egg infertile

Young taken by predator

Nest robbed

One infertile and collected

3 infertile, two collected

Infertile (cracked) egg

Nest fell down

Nest empty

1 egg slight crack. Nest destroyed.

1 young dead

Nest deserted

5 infertile eggs

One infertile

Later deserted

Later deserted

1 egg disappeared

Chick disappeared without a trace

1 young accidentally killed

Left nest before it could fly properly

One infertile later collected

Inadvertently flushed out fresh eggs during day time

Eggs disappeared

Literally cooked by the [corrugated] roof

Nest empty - egg collectors?

Bird caught on nest

One dead juvenile swallow

infertile/deserted eggs

Cause of predation not known


Birds, Separation, Species

These lines seem almost comparative to notes made within maternity registers of South African hospitals. After diagnostic annotations, there are comments – miscarriage, stillborn, teen pregnancy, NICU. While these experiences are individual their connotations have been seemingly universalized. Thus, assumption and pity extend beyond medical vernacular and invite compassion despite individual perception. Contrastingly, it seems impossible to give a detailed narrative about the lives of animals without a hint of anthropomorphism. There is no expansive ornithological vocabulary, intelligible to us, to describe their ways and thus their misfortunes (Howard, 1958: 142; Berger, 1980: 5). Humanity homogenizes its intersectional emotions and administers them when convention deems it appropriate.

And so, one wonders how the birds within the text would have responded to these disruptive moments? Did they grieve? And if so, are these emotions and their dispensation comparable to humans? These questions are often negated by implicit or explicit claims of anthropomorphism, the notion that conscious experience can only be known by the individual experiencing it and that nonhuman pain is non-comparable (Pribac, 2013: 74). Therefore, it’s helpful to understand the construction of human identity and the anthropocentric view. This section investigates trans-species responses to the sentiments within the notebook.

In a Western context, humanity is constructed based on exclusion. Non-human. Ontological othering (Badmington, 2006: 263). With civilization, the Age of Enlightenment and capitalism, these boundaries between human and non-human animals were solidified (Berger, 1980: 3). Human beings were seen to possess consciousness, emotional capacity, language and self-awareness. Contrastingly, nonhuman and especially non-mammalian animals were viewed as soulless machines, replaceable, conditional, mute-objects (Agamben, 2004). The two were given different frames. This idea of exceptionalism or the anthropological machine, according to Agamben (2004), is referred to as humanism, while anthropocentrism is the superiority linked to these attributes and the human embodiment thereof.

Waters (2018) challenges this idea of human exceptionalism through a critical reading of Van Uexküll who notes that organisms experience life though Umwelten - “self-in-world”. This concept suggests that animals have subjective experiences and individually processes experiences (Waters, 2018: 17). Van Uexküll’s work suggests that all levels of biological life, interpret the world around them and express themselves.

Thus, one wonders if the concept of tragedy can be applied to non-human animals given Umwelten. Putman (1989) argues that the notion of self-awareness is not necessary for tragedy and that if mortal creatures do not conceptualize death, then the destruction of the present, through pain and grief, is the ultimate loss (Putman, 1989). There is no “beyond” suffering or hope for a better future. No buffer. That moment is valued highly by that creature and therefore is felt deeply. Animals embody a precariousness, which Butler (2009) suggests, legitimizes grief and response (Stansecu, 2012).

Furthering this understanding of non-human grief, Pribac (2013: 67) studies death or separation in proximal subjects. The corpus-striatum, which is connected to emotional activity, is highly developed in birds. They have a quicker pulse and warmer blood making them reactive and ritual-based (Howard, 1958: 141). Furthermore, attachment in birds is deeply related to survival and to a certain extent the quality of life. For the young, caregivers serve as external regulators which in turn helps mature limbic circuits and emotional response. Mother-infant interactions are particularly vulnerable to separation here as heartrate, hormones and sleep-patterns are reliant on proximity. Infant’s systems can collapse, and incubation fails without direct parental care. Disruption to this attachment has a significant impact on the mortality of bird species. Separation anxiety and grief set in (Pribac, 2013: 72).

These symptoms of grief are embodied by Magpies who have often been observed bringing and laying strands of grass beside their dead and standing as if in vigil before taking to the skies (Pribac, 2013: 73). Similarly, various birds have been heard singing near their dead or going mute until re-partnering or nesting (Howard, 1958: 143). Separation distress appears to be common ground for human’s cross-culturally and trans-species.

From this literature, it seems as though humans, like other creatures, are centric in their being but uniquely capable of perceiving and responding to emotive stimuli. Anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism are therefore somewhat unavoidable given this embodied materiality and the frames of reference all beings use (Taylor, 2011: 265, Pribac, 2013: 77). Just as we can never understand the experience of another human nor standardize grief, we cannot fully grasp the inner-lives of animals. Emotions and mental processes in humans remain riddled with doubt and uncertainty however humans need to understand that they are not the only creatures to encounter otherness. They need to expand their ideas of empathy and ownership relating to emotions (Pribac, 2013: 77).

If one then reexamines the lines from Steyn’s notebook, noting difference and similarity between species’ grief, perhaps we can emotively learn. There is a lack of human grief that surrounds science and a collection of “partially eclipsed deaths”. Butler (2009) argues that grievability is legitimated by a normative framework that allows for human lives to be grieved while others are considered "lose-able" (Butler, 2009: 75). There is a sense that loss is almost second nature to non-human animals and thus human grief remains reluctant and reserved for the artificial - themselves. Thus, grieving a non-human challenges humanism and the status of animals as “material resources, non-social objects and replaceable members of a species” (Redmalm, 2015: 20). And while we may never consistently grieve (inter or intra species), we can act like Homer in the Iliad who faces the death of a horse with the same devastation as a soldier’s (Berger, 1980: 9). Or perhaps, we can be like Orpheus[4] and send our condolences despite a perceived language barrier.


A scientific ornithological journal seems to offer very little for a study of grief and tragedy. On a superficial level, it doesn't. Many scientists are quick to critique subjective works, like this, as unscientific and wishful, but perhaps they do so, as a means to navigate their estrangement from nature (Wohlleben, 2018).

Eggs disappeared

Literally cooked by the [corrugated] roof

Nest empty - egg collectors?

However, Notebook 2 offers a complex woven text about bound paper, a human and birds. It shows a spectrum of the objectified and subjective. Its content questions not only the emotional lives of birds but our ability, as humans, to grieve beyond notions of the other and uncertainty. The way we view animals speaks to the way we view ourselves. And while embracing post-humanist narratives about animal agency, love, sadness, and language, threaten to destabilize the human/non-human animal binaries, they also allow us to see heterogeneity in emotional experiences (Pribac, 2013: 68). Accepting nonhuman grief questions our values and hopefully inspires compassion. There will never be uniformity in grief and even if these avian stories have elicited emotion, there is no knowing.


Agamben, G. 2004. The Open: Man, and Animal. Redwood City, California: Stanford University Press.

Badmington, N. 2006. Cultural studies and the posthumanities. In New Cultural Studies: Adventures in Theory. G. Hall & C. Birchall, Eds. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. 260–273.

Butler, J. 2009. Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? London: Verso.

Berger. 1980. Why Look at Animals?” In About Looking. London: Writers and Readers: 1-26.

Howard, L. 1958. Birds as Individuals. London: Collins.

Pribac, T. 2013. Animal Grief. Animal Studies Journal. 2(2): 67-90.

Putman, D.1989. Tragedy and Nonhumans. Environmental Ethics. 11(4): 345-353.

Redmalm, D., 2015. Pet Grief: When is Non-Human Life Grievable? The Sociological Review.63(1): 19-35.

Stanescu, J. (2012), Species Trouble: Judith Butler, mourning, and the precarious lives of animals. Hypatia, 27 (3): 567–582.

Steyn, P. 2007. Peter Steyn Egg Collection Presented to PFIAO in 2007: Historical Notes. Available in drawer 1 of the cabinet.

Taylor, N. 2011. Anthropomorphism and the animal subject. In Anthropocentrism: Humans, Animals, Environments. R. Boddice, Ed. Leiden: Brill. 265–279.

Waters, M. 2018. Of Matter and Meaning: A Birds’ Egg Collection. BAHons (Curatorship) Research Project. The University of Cape Town.

Wohlleben, P. 2018. The Inner Life of Animals: Love, Grief, and Compassion—Surprising Observations of a Hidden World. London: Penguin Roundhouse.

[1] Correspondence between Mr Peter Steyn and Nathalie Viruly (email). [2] Correspondence between Dr Alan Kemp of the Transvaal Museum and Peter Steyn. [3] References are from Roberts Bird Guide: Comprehensive Field Guide to Over 950 Bird Species in Southern Africa ( 6th Edition) [4] The Greek Hero who was the son Calliope and Apollo. He was known to communicate and charm animals with language and a tune played on the lyre.

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