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Grosbeak Grief | Is it a finch or a cardinal?

Updated: Jun 29

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

Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Evening Grosbeak, Black-headed Grosbeak, and Pine Grosbeak
Clockwise from bottom left: Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Evening Grosbeak, Black-headed Grosbeak, and Pine Grosbeak

Bird names are a source of silly frustration for me. We have the power and knowledge to give birds better names, yet we cling to history and hold on to bird names that are not useful and often outdated. The grosbeaks are a prime example of this issue. Grosbeaks across two families in North America share a surname from a time in history when naturalists had to "guess" the taxonomy and lineage of birds based on physical appearance. While early naturalists did the best they could, once the evidence was presented that two birds with a shared name had minimal shared lineage, we should have abruptly fixed the error. However, the so-called "bird authorities" have done nothing to lessen the confusion of English bird names. So, here we are. Read on to learn about the history of the 'grosbeak' name.

But first, JOIN THE FLOCK!

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, the Yellow Grosbeak and the Crimson-collared Grosbeak. Before we break down each regularly occurring species, we will examine the name 'grosbeak' closely.

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.

That paragraph ended in an unsatisfying way. Do not worry; we may actually solve a mystery or two before this post has ended.

Here are the five breeding grosbeaks of the US:

The Finch: Grosbeaks

Male Pine Grosbeak
Pine Grosbeak - male

The Pine Grosbeak male has red upper parts, white wingbars, and a 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. These finches are found in the boreal forests of northern North America and in the mountainous regions of the West.

Male Evening Grosbeak
Evening Grosbeak - male

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

The Cardinal: Grosbeaks

Male Black-headed Grosbeak
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! These gorgeous members of the cardinal family are the western counterpart to the Rose-breasted Grosbeak!

Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Rose-breasted Grosbeak - male

Rose-breasted Grosbeak males also have a black head, with a bright red bib, and a pinkish "grosbeak." Females can be easily confused with the aforementioned grosbeak, but the males are unmistakable with their "bloody bib." They are typically found in the eastern parts of North America, though they wander west occasionally.

Male Blue Grosbeak
Blue Grosbeak- male | Photo: Dan Pancamo

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. Females, like every other grosbeak in this list, are much duller with a more cryptic plumage that allows for camouflage during the nesting season.

Why use the term 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 named 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 within 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? Ab-so-flocking-lutely. Who is with me!?

Did we just solve a bird case? I think so. You can call me Sher-lark Holmes.


Case closed.

Go away.

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The end.

(Sorry that post became so... Latin. That much italics usage is never a good idea.)


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