Boon Companions

Black-bellied whistling ducks (Dendrocygna autumnalis) ~ Lafitte’s Cove Nature Preserve

According to various dictionaries, both the word ‘boon’ and the phrase ‘boon companion’ are tending toward obsolescence.  Nevertheless, ‘boon companion’ is exactly the phrase that came to mind when I encountered this assortment of avian pairs on Sunday afernoon. They certainly seemed to fit the definition of ‘boon companion’ from the 1560s:  “a convivial friend or close intimate, someone with whom one enjoys spending time or sharing activities.”

Foraging white-faced ibis (Plegadis chihi) & snowy egret (Egretta thula) ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

While it makes sense that members of the same species would enjoy hanging out together, cross-species companionship isn’t unknown. Many waterbirds engage in what’s known as commensal feeding, practices that benefit both members of the pair:

In commensal associations, members of one species assist the foraging of another, but incur no significant costs and receive no benefits. One of the more common commensal associations involves “beaters,” which stir up prey, and “attendants,” which simply follow in their footsteps taking whatever comes their way.
Many waterbirds, marsh birds, and shorebirds attend particular beater species. Great and Snowy Egrets attend cormorants; Snowy Egrets, Tricolored Herons, and Great Egrets attend mergansers. Some attendants will follow more than one beater species. Enterprising American Coots attend Canvasbacks, Tundra Swans, Mallards, pintails, and Redheads. In water of swimming depth, Wilson’s Phalaropes will follow Northern Shovelers; where they can wade, they will often forage behind American Avocets.

Simple proximity doesn’t always guarantee that a pair of birds are feeding commensally, but after watching this ibis and egret for a half-hour, I became certain they were sharing a meal.

Napping double-crested cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus)
On the other hand, most of the cormorants seemed ready for after-dinner naps. When I stopped to admire this pair, they deigned to look at me once before re-tucking their heads into their feathery pillows: perhaps to dream of fish in the afternoon warmth.

Comments always are welcome.
Click to enlarge any image for greater detail.


59 thoughts on “Boon Companions

  1. I find myself dreaming of fish as well–not for eating them, but for being out among them, where they are wild and at home and (just possibly?) hungry enough to take an interest in my feathery offering. I have trouble remembering the last time I brought a fish home (it’s been at least 20 years for a trout), but when the Minnesota bass and bluegill are in abundance, I may occasionally make an exception, especially if one is inadvertently injured. And it’s all up in the air now, so to speak, and anyone’s guess when this kind of outdoor recreation may be permitted again. I’m especially fond of your shot of the cormorants.

    1. It was years — decades — before I learned that the ‘sunfish’ my dad and I pursued during my Iowa childhood were bluegills. I was reading about Texas bluegills when I found this familiar description of bluegill fishing:

      ” Part of the charm of fishing for sunfish like bluegills is the simplicity of it. ‘Bluegill fishing gets back to fishing the way it should be,’ says Neely. ‘You don’t need fancy electronics, high-dollar equipment or a boat to find quality bluegills. All you need are a few hooks, split shot, bobbers, some nightcrawlers and a light-action rod rigged with light line.'” Yep. Substitute ‘cane pole’ for ‘light-action rod,’ and that’s it, exactly.

      The shot of the cormorants is my favorite of the three. I love the whistling ducks for their personalities, and I enjoy catching glimpses of behavior I’ve read about, like the commensal feeding, but cormorants so often show up in photos as little more than black blobs, and being able to capture the texture and colors of their feathers was special.

    1. I’d figured out the relationship between ‘boon’ and bon, but ‘bonny’ didn’t occur to me. That’s interesting. Spelling counts, too: ‘bony’ is a different thing!

  2. Thinking about it, my animals are certainly my boon companions. They always warn me of approaching visitors, as I give them in return a safe shelter. That’s aside from their wonderful company and observations of the world around us.

    1. I’d gotten used to Dixie Rose being gone, but of late I’ve found myself missing her again. Like your animals, she certainly was a boon companion. At least, I thought of her in that way. Sometimes I suspect she wasn’t so sure about me. I suspect yours provide something else that Dixie often offered: sheer, unadulterated amusement. She could be a caution, as Grandma used to say.

      1. Oh yes, Frank continues to tease Fred, and Pixel is as you’d expect any self respecting female torty to be. I’ve been thinking back to some of the boy’s exploits and so there’s a subject for the blog.

  3. My idea of commensural feeding is me reclining on a chez longue on a patio with an umbrella drink in the coolth of a summer evening attracting mosquitoes while purple martins pick them off in huge numbers before they ever make it to me.

    1. I like that, and it’s going to become an increasingly attractive fantasy in the coming weeks. I’ve discovered that my lovely patio is home base for a lot of them. The irrigation system keeps the hedges and their mulch nicely moist, and I think they might be breeding there. They seem to enjoy traveling, too, since I’m finding increasing numbers inside my place. Bring on the purple martins — and more lizards, please.

  4. This was a boon to my day. No out and abouting here. New Zealand is in lockdown, though one is permitted to take a short walk in the neighborhood with your bubble buddy. No foraging or feeding permitted.

    1. Speaking of bubble buddies, look what was taking a walk in a local neighborhood on Saturday. I have no explanation for this, apart from a case of acute cabin fever. What’s almost as funny as the ‘creature’ is that the dog doesn’t seem to think anything is amiss.

        1. At this point, I’ll take my humor anywhere I can find it. By the way, speaking of humor, and given the presence of Teddy bears in your life, you might enjoy this post. It took me a minute to ‘get it,’ but when I did, I admired his cleverness.

    1. It’s fun to catch pairs like that when the conditions — shallow water, isolation from other birds, and so on — are just right. You can watch one of the waders stirring up the water with its feet, and the other poking around behind at whatever has been stirred up. In this case, the contrast in the birds’ appearance was nice, too.

    1. I’d meant to tell you that I finished reading Linda Wires’s The Double-Crested Cormorant. It was a fascinating read all the way through, and I certainly see the birds in a different and more sympathetic way now. It was in April of last year that I found whistling ducks with their babies in this same pond; I’m hoping for the same this year.

  5. Your photo of the ibis and egret together is really striking. I’ve often found it surprising that different species of songbirds feed together on our feeders–sparrows and grackles, doves, bluejays, etc. Only woodpeckers are intolerant. They have to have the feeders completely to themselves.

    1. The most intolerant around my feeders seem to be the doves. They don’t chase off other species, but they do fuss among themselves. For inter-species rivalry, the squirrels and bluejays provide some amusement, but I’ve sighted only one woodpecker, once. A lack of woodpecker approved trees no doubt’s the reason for that.

    1. Thanks, Derrick. Thinking about it, I don’t remember seeing any wading birds in your photos of your walks. Have I missed them, or are they in short supply in your area?

  6. I get a kick out of our ibis around here. They are so used to humans that they simple ignore us. One day I had a lot of old bread I was about to throw away – did I ever become the most popular person on the block!!

    1. Our ibis and cattle egrets can act in just that way. They’re not insistent on attention in the same way that the gulls and grackles are, but they’re not particularly disturbed by us, either. On the other hand, if there are obviously treats at hand — well, who wouldn’t take advantage of that?

      1. The lawnmowers always have at least one running behind the riding mower! It’s too funny! When the mower turns to come back, the bird doesn’t move to the side – he runs in front of it – turns and follows it back again!! (Oh jeez – am I showing just how bored I am?) ⏱

    1. I’ve been noticing the differences between the fox and eastern gray squirrels here. The physical differences are obvious, but some of the behaviors are interesting. The eastern grays are up early, at first light, and always begin their day by chasing one another around and around the trees until it’s time for breakfast. The fox squirrels get up later, stretch, lay around on a branch for a while, and then wander down to see what’s on offer. It’s funny as can be.

    1. There’s nothing like a nice rest in a secure spot — especially for these birds, who can get along with a social distance of about six inches or so!

  7. Fascinating – I hadn’t heard of commensal feeding before. Now I’ll have to see if I can spot it happening anywhere…though it may have to wait a bit!

      1. That’s a new one on me! We don’t get turtles here – I suspect it would be too cold. But maybe I’ll get to see one somewhere eventually…(I’m in the UK).

        1. I actually had a blog friend once who lived in Wales with his tortoise, named Henry. Of course, Henry had to have a little help to make it through the winters. When he began to show signs of wanting to slow down, he was brought indoors to some pretty fancy digs, where he drowsed away the winter. When it was time to greet the spring, he emerged slowly, tempted along by lettuces and such. I can’t remember now how they two of them “met,” but Henry and his keeper certainly were boon companions.

  8. Linda, four star photos! I can’t decide which I love most — that first one or the ibis and egret. Most definitely a peaceable kingdom here. And I learned something too!

    1. It does seem to be a peaceable kingdom — at least, until the various territorial and mating squabbles begin. I’ve been seeing the coots, particularly, become more aggressive and active. It’s mostly for show — I’ve never seen one really injured — but they do like to stake their claims. I couldn’t decide which of the photos of the whistling ducks to use. The duck on the right kept closing and opening that nictitating eyelid, so I decided to go with half-closed!

  9. These look a lot more peaceful and accommodating than the yard birds we typically see here. Having some birds stir up the food and others accept whatever arrives seems like a nice way to coexist. Ours, however, grumble and grab for any morsels they can find, often flapping their wings in what looks to me like irritation at one another. Perhaps they’re just afraid there won’t be enough to go around!

    1. Birds can get greedy around the feeders, no question about that. I always laugh at my doves. They may be symbols of peace and gentleness, and when there were only two, they were very well behaved. When another pair arrived, there still was space for everyone, but now there are as many as eight or so at a time, and you wouldn’t believe the squabbles. They’re as bad as hummingbirds.

  10. Several thoughts come to mind, Linda. One is our bird feeder which at first glance is the opposite of cooperative feeding. The feeding arrangement is, Big Guys Rule. Others dash in when the opportunity presents itself. Then I had a second thought. Some of the birds are messy eaters and lots of seeds fall on the ground where the ground feeding birds (and squirrels) gathers. Second, watching flamingos stir an area as a group, working in unison. Absolutely fascinating. Finally, the nesting mergansers are back on the river beneath our house. Beautiful birds and always fun to watch. The last photo is a hoot. –Curt

    1. Now that I have feeders up, I have plenty of opportunity to enjoy watching those Big Guys rule. The most entertaining conflicts are between the bluejays and the squirrels. I’ve mitigated some conflict by putting different seed in different feeders — millet for the doves in one, shelled peanuts in another, and so on. The cardinals don’t come to the feeders. They prefer to stay on the ground, underneath the shrubbery, so I toss a sunflower kernels down there for them.

      You’re lucky to have mergansers. They’ll show up here from time to time, but very rarely. I think it’s been two years since I’ve seen a pair. Now and then we’ll even get loons, but that’s uncommon, too. Now, mallards? We’ve got mallards galore! They’re pretty fun, too.

      I love that photo of the cormorants.Not only are their postures nice and curvy, the feather details really appealed to me.

  11. Personally I like the word boon although I rarely hear it used. It was common when I was a child. Maybe your reintroduction into the common parlance will bring it back to everyday usage.Interesting that two of your pairs are napping together.

    1. In truth, not all of the whistling ducks or cormorants were napping. There were plenty around that were foraging, or just sitting around watching — I just chose the pairs that fit the post. I have noticed that mated pairs often will nap together, though: northern shovelers, teal, mallards, and so on. It does seem to be more common among the ducks. The herons and egrets sometimes seem to be having a snooze up on one foot, but they tend to stay solitary.

      It makes sense that you would have heard the word ‘boon’ used more often. I only came across it in literature, and although I like it and use it, it wasn’t a part of my childhood. I suspect areas with more English/Scottish heritage might have used it more than the Scandinavians I grew up around.

    1. If you like the idea of black-bellied whistling ducks, you would love the real thing. They’re so funny. Their calls are unmistakable, and they often travel in flocks. They have the best feet in the duck world, too — like these.

  12. These are just excellent photos! They could be in the Audubon magazine. And fascinating about the commensal feeding. These examples of synergy in nature are great!
    When people talk about “beaters” I always think 1. an old rustbucket, a/k/a “winter rat” used for winter driving, to keep the salt from destroying the good cars.
    2. Those hunting parties on the English estates, with the aristocrats investing a lot in manpower (the beaters, to flush the game birds), fancy Holland & Holland shotguns, and tweed coats, all to blast a bunch of 3 oz. quail. There was an old movie, with James Mason “The Shooting Party” that had one of these hunts.
    You’re a pretty good shot, too! Three outstanding photographs.

    1. I still hear cars referred to as ‘beaters’ from time to time, as well as ‘rust buckets,’ but it never occurred to me that people might have a second car for the salt season. It makes sense, just as it makes sense down here to either have a beach vehicle or spend a lot of time at the car wash. The last time I went down on the island and drove the whole length of what we call the bluewater highway, I was so salt-encrusted when I got home it was pathetic. That’s one reason I’m reluctant to take my camera out on ventures like that. The combination of strong wind, sand, and salt doesn’t seem like it would be good for fine electronics.

      Here’s a tidbit for you: the reason the Victorian homes on Galveston Island have so much wooden ‘gingerbread’ trim is salt. Early residents wanted to imitate New Orleans’ fancy iron grillework, but the salt just destroyed it. So, wood it was.

      Quail season was really, really good in South Texas this year. I’m not fond of most game birds, but I will say that bacon-wrapped quail can be pretty darned good. And now I’m thinking about that old expression about ‘beating the bushes.’ I’d never thought about where it came from, but now I think I know.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the photos, too. One of the great advantages of coming across nappping birds — or lazy ones, for that matter — is that they aren’t flapping or flopping or flying!

  13. Not sure I have ever heard the phrase “boon companion” spoken aloud, though I have read it on the page. Seems a jolly sort of phrase, a shame to lose it. I am also very glad there is a kind of duck called the Black-Bellied Whistling Duck. I’m going to work both boon companion and the BBWD into my next conversation.

    1. There was a mama with nine or ten babies in this same pond last year. There might have been more — it’s hard to keep track of that many. And for a while, there was a group of teen-agers hanging out on top of a shelter at my favorite refuge. If you got there early enough in the morning, you could watch them playing duck games on top of the roof. I think the goal was to be the last duck standing — they are wonderfully funny creatures. They nest in trees, so they like heights.

    1. You sure do — feathered, four-footed, prickly, and sweet. Speaking of which — have you seen Peanut of late? She was quite a good companion for a while!

    1. And I suspect they would have been happy to invite you into their world — as long as you didn’t insist on disturbing their sleep or snatching away their prey!

  14. Birding is fun, and the words you’re using are just fine. When I sometimes watch Masterpiece Theater and I hear the English they speak, I wonder if some of them are tending toward obsolescence.

    1. Language is a living thing, and words come and go. That’s one reason I have to turn to the Urban Dictionary from time to time, or the various internet abbreviation dictionaries. It’s surprising how many times I have no idea what people are talking about when I encounter new words and phrases.

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