Leonardo da Vinci’s Woodpecker


“Describe the tongue of the woodpecker,” Leonardo da Vinci wrote as a reminder to himself in one of his journals. “Why?” is the first and last question we ask. What purpose does it serve? I’m curious about stupid, little things, but most of my obsessions involve human interaction, but the information I learn often serves to help me understand and develop interpersonal relationships better, and they can help me understand myself better. Most of da Vinci’s questions pertained to his profession, but the tongue of the woodpecker? Judging da Vinci’s obsessions in a broad scope, we could say he was either the most scatterbrained mind in history, or as art historian said, Kenneth Clark said, “The most relentlessly curious man in history.” Those characterizations might answer the question with a broad brush, but they don’t answer the specific question why even the most relentlessly curious mind would drill so far down to the tongue of the woodpecker for answers. For that, we turn to da Vinci’s vague, or comprehensive, answer, “Everything connects to everything else.”

We’ve all witnessed woodpeckers knocking away at a tree numerous times. Depending on where we live though, it’s probably not something we hear so often that it fades into the background. We stop, we try to locate them, and then we move on. Why do they do it? Why does any animal do anything? To get food. Yet, how many of us have considered the potential damage all that knocking could do to the woodpecker’s brain? If any other animal did it, it would result in headaches, concussions, and possible long term brain damage. How does a woodpecker avoid all that? If I ever delved deep into that question, which I didn’t, because why would I? I would just assume nature takes care of itself somehow. As curious as I am, by nature, I wouldn’t dig deep into the five W’s on it.

The to do list

“Describe the tongue of the woodpecker,” da Vinci wrote, but he never did describe what he found. Did he discover how long the tongue was relative to the small bird, and its relatively small head? Did he believe that the extent of the functionality involved helping the bird hammer into wood, clearing wood chips, and creating a nest. If his note was devoted to what he saw the bird do, he probably saw it perform all of these chores, coupled with using it retrieve ants and grubs from the hole it created. If he watched the bird, he probably saw what every other observer could see. It doesn’t seem characteristic to da Vinci that he leave his conclusions to superficial observations, but I have not found a conclusion in da Vinci’s journal to suggest that he dissected the bird and found the full functionality of the tongue. There were no notes to suggest da Vinci found, as IFOD.com lists, “[W]hen not in use the woodpecker’s unusually long tongue retracts into the skull and its cartilage-like structure continues past the jaw to wrap around the bird’s head and then curve[s] down to its nostril. In addition to digging out grubs from a tree, the long tongue protects the woodpecker’s brain. When the bird smashes its beak repeatedly into tree bark, the force exerted on its head is ten times what would kill a human. But its bizarre tongue and supporting structure act as a cushion, shielding the brain from shock.”    

If da Vinci knew this, and he simply forgot to write his findings in his journal [which is characteristic of his scattered brain, and his documented history of losing interest in a project and leaving it incomplete], then those of us who consider ourselves curious just learned a whole new definition of curiosity. We would also have a whole new definition of the term deep dive. Brilliant musicians dive deep to understand sound, acoustics, and how they might be able to manipulate them in a unique manner to serve the song. Writers pay attention to the power of words, and the power of the great sentence. Artists, in general, seek to understand the small, minutiae that others do not to achieve a greater understanding of the bigger, greater matters, but a study of the woodpecker’s doesn’t appear to serve any large or small purpose.  

The idea that he was curious about the tongue is fascinating, as it details the full breadth of his sense of curiosity, but it still didn’t appear to serve a purpose. The only answer Walter Isaacson wrote for da Vinci’s relentless curiosity was, “Leonardo with his acute ability to observe objects in motion knew there was something to be learned from it.”   

The price we all pay for da Vinci for stretching himself so thin (and we will compile a list of his varied interests in a future article), is relatively few paintings. “You could say that,” we say arguing with ourselves, “but if he wasn’t so relentlessly curious about such a wide range of relatively insignificant matters, the relatively few works we have likely wouldn’t have the detail and precision we know.” If he wasn’t so relentless curious about water flow and the light and shadow techniques he employed (sfumato and Chiaroscuro), it might’ve taken future artists hundreds of tears to understand them better. Da Vinci did not discover these techniques, but according to the history of art we know, no one employed them better prior to da Vinci, and his works influenced the world.   

Some arguments lead to other arguments. Is it more important for an artist to be a prolific, or an artist who has created relatively few masterpieces? We all know that if an artist has a Mona Lisa or a The Last Supper on their resume, they don’t need to do anything else, but when a writer has one great book, or a musician has one brilliant album, there is always a hunger for more. Pablo Picasso painted approximately 13,500 paintings and around 100,000 prints, and Vincent van Gogh had 2,000 artworks, consisting of around 900 paintings and 1,100 drawings and sketches. By comparison, da Vinci produced 24 that are generally to universally accepted as his paintings. Do the best works of Picasso and van Gogh compare to da Vinci’s masterpieces? These are rhetorical questions, of course, as there is no definitive answer, but the nagging question is could da Vinci have created more masterpieces if he didn’t stretch himself so thin. There are probably a lot more da Vinci paintings that were lost, destroyed, or are as of yet undiscovered, but if he hadn’t devoted himself to answering the mundane would those other paintings he never made be as great as the ones that incorporated all of the trivial knowledge he attained with his scattered brain?  

Why did da Vinci pursue such mundane matters? Author Walter Isaacson posits that da Vinci’s talent “May have been connected to growing up with a love of nature while not being overly schooled in received wisdom.” On the subject of received wisdom, or a formal education, da Vinci admitted that he was “a man without letters”, but he, like most of those who rail against anyone who has more letters after their name than they do, he declared himself “a disciple of experience”. He illustrated his mindset further saying, “He who has access to the fountain does not need to go to the water-jar.” He who has access to nature, in other words, doesn’t need to learn about it through text books. Why would he write about such things, unless he suffered from something of an inferiority complex in this arena? We can guess that in the arena of artistic brilliance, da Vinci knew few peers. We can guess that his brilliance was recognized so early that when someone called him the most brilliant painter of his era, it didn’t move him much after a while. For all of his brilliance, we might wonder if he suffered an inferiority complex to those with letters behind their name. “What do you know,” we can only guess someone might have said to him. “You’re just a painter.” Was he excluded from intellectual discussions? Was he only relegated to the artistic community in ways that grated on him, or did he spend much of his free time chasing intellectual boogie men he dreamed up to fuel his competitive curious nature?

One element that cannot be tossed aside when discussing da Vinci’s relentless curiosity. He was born of, if not privilege, at least a comfortable lifestyle. The young da Vinci never had to worry about money. As such, he was afforded an uncluttered mind. When a young mind doesn’t have to worry about money, food, or achieving an education to provide for himself and his family, he is free to roam the countryside and be curious about things the more impoverished cannot. Isaacson’s writing makes clear that although Leonardo da Vinci was an unusual mind on an epic, historical scale, the privilege of thinking about, and obsessing over such matters can only come from one who has an inordinate amount of free time on his hands. Perhaps this was due to his privilege, his comfortable lifestyle, or the idea that he didn’t have much in the way of structured schooling to eat up much of his time in youth. 

Having said that, most modern men and women currently have as much, if not more, free time on their hands, and we could probably compile a list of things we wonder about a thousand bullet points long and never reach the woodpecker’s tongue, the peculiarities of the geese feet, or the jaws of a crocodile to the point that we conduct independent studies or dissections. We don’t have to do such things now, because we have a multitude on documentaries on nature to provide our “jars of water”, so we no longer go to the fountains to arrive independent answers.  

Consider me one who has never arrived at an independent discovery when it comes to nature and animals, as I don’t seek primary source answers on them. I, too, am a student of the jaws of water that various mediums, be they TV or books provide, but I am a student of the mind, and I do seek primary source information on the subject of human nature. On this subject, I do not back away from the charge that I’m so curious about it that I exhibit a childlike naïveté some of the times, but reading about Leonardo’s curiosity leads me to believe I wasn’t as half as curious as I thought I was or could be if I drilled deeper. Who drills drill that deep? One of the greatest artists of all time did, and now that we know the multifaceted functions of the woodpecker’s tongue, we can see why he was so fascinated, but what sparked that curiosity? It obviously wasn’t to inform his art, and there is nothing da Vinci’s bio that would suggest that that knowledge was in service of anything. He was just curious. He was just a man who used nature to describe, in his paintings and his journals, how everything connects to everything else. 

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