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Grosbeak Grief | Is it a finch or a cardinal?

Updated: Jun 29, 2023

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knowledge to give birds better names, yet we cling to history and hold on to bird names that are not useful and often outdated.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.