Grosbeak Grief (Finch or Cardinal?)

Updated: Apr 1

Curious why birds that share the grosbeak surname are not related? We are here to share an answer!

Black-headed Grosbeak and Evening Grosbeak

Gross of Grosbeaks

In the US and Canada, there are five regularly breeding species of "grosbeaks." Two exist in the finch family, and three occur in the cardinal family. Additionally, there are two vagrant grosbeaks that appear in the southern US. Before we break down each species, let's take a look at that name.

O Grosbeak, What is in a Name?

The name grosbeak is pretty simple to understand. Gros(s) originates from the late Latin word grossus. From there, it was morphed into gros (or grosse), meaning "large." Beak follows a similar route from Latin beccus, to Old French bec. In the late 1600s, grosbec was applied to Old Word passerines. Thus, the "large beaks" were born. Which bird was the first given the grosbeak moniker? I have no idea.

Okay, enough of the "boring" stuff for now. Here are the five breeding grosbeaks of the US:

The Finch Grosbeaks

Pine Grosbeak - male

The Pine Grosbeak male has red upperparts, white wingbars, and beak that is hardly a "grosbeak." When compared to the bills of the other birds listed in this post, the Pine Grosbeak is at the small end of the spectrum.

Evening Grosbeak - male

Evening Grosbeak males have yellowish upperparts with a dark head and a pale to yellowish "grosbeak." They also show a yellow "eyebrow."

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The Cardinal Grosbeaks

Black-headed Grosbeak - male

Black-headed Grosbeak males have a black head, brilliant rusty/orange breast, and a darkened "grosbeak." Females can be confused with Rose-breasted Grosbeak, but that is a topic for a different post!

Rose-breasted Grosbeak - male

Rose-breasted Grosbeak males also have a black head, with a bright red bib, and a pinkish "grosbeak."

Blue Grosbeak- male

The Blue Grosbeak has a blue body, rusty upper wing coverts, and a darker "grosbeak." Some will confuse the males AND females of the Blue Grosbeak with Indigo Buntings.

Why Use Grosbeak Across Families?

This is the question of the day. Early naturalists may have assumed that all birds with large beaks were probably related. Since the name originated in France, the finches were likely named first. Then, when birds were being studied in the New World, grosbeak was applied to the similar-looking birds found here. This is the same issue we see in the American Robin, which is not a true robin but a thrush.

In fact, in 1760 a French zoologist, Mathurin Brisson, gave the (possibly) original name of the Rose-breasted Grosbeak as the Louisiana Grosbeak. However, the zoologist did not conform correctly to the binomial system (scientific naming system) when describing its scientific name. Then, in the correction of this error, in 1766, Carl Linnaeus reconfigured the scientific name of the Rose-breasted Grosbeak to Loxia ludoviciana. If you are unaware, Loxia is the genus of.... the crossbills (which are finches)! Loxia originates from Greek and translates as "crosswise," while ludoviciana translates as Louisiana. We now know this is not the case, as the Rose-breasted and Black-headed Grosbeaks are now placed in the genus Pheucticus, and the cardinal family. This confusion of the cardinal grosbeaks and finch grosbeaks, created by early naturalists, has been allowed to continue for generations (blame Brisson or the Louisiana Grosbeak). While the name is descriptive, it can be confusing to understand the lack of additional shared traits between grosbeaks.

Time for a name change? You tell me.

Did we just solve a bird case? I think so. (Just call me Sher-lark Holmes.)


Case closed.

Go away.

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The end.

(Sorry that post became so... Latin. I did not enjoy using italics that frequently.)

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