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.

We’re all curious about stupid, little things, but most of our curiosities serve a purpose. As we all know now, information about nature help us understand us better, it can also help us understand the various otherwise complex and interconnected systems of nature, but we normally restrict our studies to the big things, such as behavior, diet, and other things that we can use. We see anomalies in nature all the time, and we study them to find answers to our questions, but what would purpose could the study of a bird’s tongue serve a 16th century artist? 

Judging his obsessions in a broad scope, we could say da Vinci was either the most scatterbrained mind in history, or as art historian said, Kenneth Clark said, “The most relentlessly curious.” Those characterizations might answer the question with a broad brush, but they don’t answer the specific question of 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.” He wasn’t searching with a purpose, in other words, he was searching for a purpose of the purpose of the tongue.

We’ve all witnessed woodpeckers knocking away at a tree numerous times. Depending on where we live, it’s probably not something we hear so often that it fades into the background. When we hear it, we stop, we try to locate them, and then we move on. Why do they knock? Why does any animal do anything? To get food. Yet, how many of us have considered the potential damage all that knocking could have on 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 of that? If I ever delved deep into that question, which I didn’t, because why would I? I would just assume nature always takes care of itself somehow. As curious as I am, 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 described what he found. Did he discover how long the tongue was relative to the small bird, and its comparatively small head? Did he believe that the extent of the functionality involved helping the bird hammer into wood, clear wood chips, and/or create 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 to retrieve ants and grubs from the hole it’s knocking created. If da Vinci watched the bird, he probably saw what every other observer could see. It doesn’t seem characteristic to da Vinci to 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 found this, and he simply forgot to write it 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 into 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, subtle yet powerful forms of manipulation, and the power of the great sentence. Artists, in general, seek to achieve a greater understanding of little things for the expressed purpose of gaining a greater understanding of larger 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 pay for da Vinci for stretching himself so thin (The article Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo da Vinci provides a deeper dive into this subject), is relatively few paintings. “You could say that,” we might 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 now know.” If he wasn’t so relentless curious about the particulars of the manner in which water flows, and the effects of light and shadow, led to the techniques he employed (sfumato and Chiaroscuro), that might’ve taken future artists hundreds of years to nuance into its final form. Da Vinci did not discover these techniques, but according to the history of art, no one employed them better prior to da Vinci, and his works elevated these techniques to influence the world of art.   

Some arguments lead to other arguments. Is it more important for an artist to be prolific, or should they focus their life on creating 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 much 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 works of art, 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 are no definitive answers, 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 so much of his time to answering mundane questions about nature, 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 letters after their name, declared himself “a disciple of experience”. He was what we call an autodidact, or a self-taught person. He illustrated his education further saying, “He who has access to the fountain does not need to go to the water-jar.” He who has access to primary sources, in other words, doesn’t need to learn about it in the second hand knowledge learned in text books. Anytime I hear or read someone say such things, my initial response is “of course”. My second impression is that if this person feels the need to say such things, he must suffer from some inferiority complexes in this regard. We can guess that in his era, da Vinci knew few peers in the arena of artistic brilliance. 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 some intellectual discussions early on in life? 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 curiosity? 

da Vinci probably saw the same battles between intellects and brilliant artists we see today. The brilliant artist’s primary goal in life, once accepted as a brilliant artist is to compensate for his lack of intellect by either displaying it in their brilliant works of art or diminish the level of intellect their peers have achieved. Is this what da Vinci was doing when he laid out a motto for all, one he called Saper vedere (to know how to see). He claimed that there are three different kinds of people, “Those who see by themselves, those who see when someone has shown them and those who do not see.” In this motto, da Vinci claims his method superior, which it is if one counts consulting primary sources for information, but why he felt the need to pound it into our head goes to this probable inferiority complex, as do the second and third legs of his motto. They’re correct, of course, but why the most brilliant artist of his era needs to pound the table with it tells us a lot more about da Vinci than he probably wanted known. 

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 those with other concerns in life do not have time to pursue. 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 so much of his free 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 documentaries on TV or books, 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 an almost childlike naïveté some of the times, but reading about Leonardo’s curiosity leads me to believe I’m not half as curious as I thought I was or could be if I drilled deeper. Yet, 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 to suggest that that knowledge was in service of anything. He was just a curious man. 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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