GROSBEAK (Fr. Grosbec), a name very indefinitely applied to many birds belonging to the families Fringillidae and Ploceidae of modern ornithologists, and perhaps to some members of the Emberizidae and Tanagridae, but always to birds distinguished by the great size of their bill. Taken alone it is commonly a synonym of hawfinch (q.v.), but a prefix is usually added to indicate the species, as pine-grosbeak, cardinal-grosbeak and the like. By early writers the word was generally given as an equivalent of the Linnaean Loxia, but that genus has been found to include many forms not now placed in the same family.
The Pine-grosbeak (Pinicola enucleator) inhabits the conifer-zone of both the Old and the New Worlds, seeking, in Europe and probably elsewhere, a lower latitude as winter approaches—often journeying in large flocks; stragglers have occasionally reached the British Islands (Yarrell, Br. Birds, ed. 4, ii. 177-179). In structure and some of its habits much resembling a bullfinch, but much exceeding that bird in size, it has the plumage of a crossbill and appears to undergo the same changes as do the members of the restricted genus Loxia—the young being of a dull greenish-grey streaked with brownish-black, the adult hens tinged with golden-green, and the cocks glowing with crimson-red on nearly all the body-feathers, this last colour being replaced after moulting in confinement by bright yellow. Nests of this species were found in 1821 by Johana Wilhelm Zetterstedt near Juckasjärwi in Swedish Lapland, but little was known concerning its nidification until 1855, when John Wolley, after two years’ ineffectual search, succeeded in obtaining near the Finnish village Muonioniska, on the Swedish frontier, well-authenticated specimens with the eggs, both of which are like exaggerated bullfinches’. The food of this species seems to consist of the seeds and buds of many sorts of trees, though the staple may very possibly be those of some kind of pine.
Allied to the pine-grosbeak are a number of species of smaller size, but its equals in beauty of plumage. They have been referred to several genera, such as Carpodacus, Propasser, Bycanetes, Uragus and others; but possibly Carpodacus is sufficient to contain all. Most of them are natives of the Old World, and chiefly of its eastern division, but several inhabit the western portion of North America, and one, C. githagineus (of which there seem to be at least two local races), is an especial native of the deserts, or their borders, of Arabia and North Africa, extending even to some of the Canary Islands—a singular modification in the habitat of a form which one would be apt to associate exclusively with forest trees, and especially conifers.
The cardinal grosbeak, or Virginian nightingale, Cardinalis virginianus, claims notice here, though doubts may be entertained as to the family to which it really belongs. It is no less remarkable for its bright carmine attire, and an elongated crest of the same colour, than for its fine song. Its ready adaptation to confinement has made it a popular cage-bird on both sides of the Atlantic. The hen is not so good a songster as the cock bird. Her plumage, with exception of the wings and tail, which are of a dull red, is light-olive above and brownish-yellow beneath. This species inhabits the eastern parts of the United States southward of 40° N. lat., and also occurs in the Bermudas. It is represented in the south-west of North America by other forms that by some writers are deemed species, and in the northern parts of South America by the C. phoeniceus, which would really seem entitled to distinction. Another kindred bird placed from its short and broad bill in a different genus, and known as Pyrrhuloxia sinuata or the Texan cardinal, is found on the southern borders of the United States and in Mexico; while among North American “grosbeaks” must also be named the birds belonging to the genera Guiraca and Hedymeles—the former especially exemplified by the beautiful blue G. caerulea, and the latter by the brilliant rose-breasted H. ludovicianus, which last extends its range into Canada.
- Many of them are described and illustrated in the Monographie des loxiens of Prince C. L. Bonaparte and Professor Schlegel (1850), though it excludes many birds which an English writer would call “grosbeaks.”