Rusty Blackbird Cukcugli

by Frank Keim

original artwork by Frank Keim

What a coincidence. Just moments before starting to write this article, a small troupe of Rusty blackbirds flew over my house, headed south for the winter.

I used the word “troupe” because it refers to their behavior of gathering in usually quite large flocks, or troupes. In fact, they are a part of the Troupial family of songbirds that is made up of 91 species and only exists in the New World. The scientific name for this family is Icteridae, from the Greek ikteros, meaning the color of jaundice, a liver infection that turns your skin yellowish-green.

Although many of the Icteridae are yellowish-green, the Rusty blackbird is anything but jaundiced in color. The male has a glossy purplish black plumage in spring, which turns rusty brown in fall. Its scientific name, Euphagus carolinus, which loosely translates as “well-fed Carolinian,” is not nearly as descriptive of its habits as the Yup’ik name, Cukcugli, which means, “the one that goes chuck chuck,” referring to a call that it makes. It’s yet another of the many birds of the YK Delta that has a name like the sound it makes. Onomatopoeic, or imitative, right?

Curiously, the Arctic Inupiat name for the bird, Tulungiksyauraq, means “little raven.” No mystery why it has that name, if you check the illustration. Even one of its common English names, rusty crow, claims a similar relationship to the bird’s much larger distant cousins.

Cukcugli is an early migrant to Alaska and the YK Delta, arriving at roughly the same time as the spring peepers (wood frogs) start calling. I remember that I used to see them in Marshall for the first time between mid-April and mid-May down by Wilson Creek where they liked to nest. There was just the right combination of marshy spruce woods, alders and willows, and shallow pools along the creek to be ideal for setting up a household and having young.

Especially while canoeing on the creek in late summer and early fall I would see these blackbirds and their young, stepping deliberately along the shoreline in search of water bugs, caddisfly larvae, dragonflies and mosquitoes, wayward ants, spiders and caterpillars, snails and even small fish. They don’t limit themselves only to meat, though. They are omnivores, and will eat other things like wildflower and tree seeds, bunchberries, cranberries and blueberries.

But I’m ahead of myself. Let’s go back to spring when the blueberries are just beginning to green up and only the giant mosquitoes are quietly lumbering about the countryside.

After returning from southern climes, the sleek male establishes his home territory and, with his repertoire of sweet gurgles and whistles, attracts a lovely brown mate. Then while still singing his praises he stands sentinel as she constructs a cup-shaped nest in a nearby spruce or alder. She usually builds the nest close to water out of twigs, lichens, mud and fine green grasses. She alone incubates her 4-5 brown-blotched light blue-green eggs, although her mate feeds her while she broods the eggs on the nest.

Like other songbirds, Cukcugli lays one egg per day. After the final egg is laid, she incubates her eggs with the help of her brood patch. This is an oval-shaped patch of bare skin on her belly, which during this period develops a rich supply of blood vessels just under the skin. By pressing the brood patch against the eggs, body heat is transferred to them and their embryos begin to grow. Only 14 days after the last egg is laid, the young hatch. Within another 14 days the young test their new wing feathers and fly for the first time. During these two intense weeks and two more that follow, both parents devotedly feed and tend their young.

After the young start feeding for themselves, this is when I was able to observe them most as they foraged along the edge of Wilson Creek. I’d stop my canoe on the placid black water and just watch them and listen to their lazy chuck chuck chuck. They’d be there every weekend until one day when the willow leaves began to turn a brilliant yellow, I’d see their little troupes flying over my head, saying, chuck chuck chuck, “see you next year.”