The ostrich ‘head in sand’ myth is a persistent one.
Many people have heard of the idiom ‘burying one’s head in the sand’, i.e., pretending a problem doesn’t exist. And most of us know that the ostrich inspired this saying.
The world’s biggest bird supposedly hides its head in the sand to ignore its (predator-related) problems.
If that sounds like a spectacularly bad idea, it’s because it is. The ostrich’s problems would be over with this strategy, but so would its life!
So, do ostriches really bury their heads in the sand? Unsurprisingly, they don’t. The phrase works well as a metaphor, but less well as a survival strategy.
Perhaps a better question is: where does the myth of the ostrich burying its head in the sand come from? Could some part of the bird’s behaviour explain this misconception, or is it outright fiction?
Read on to learn all about the ostrich head in sand myth and find out several interesting ostrich facts along the way.
Ostrich Head in Sand Origin
It’s difficult to know exactly how the myth of the ostrich hiding its head in the sand got started. Some sources suggest it stems from Ancient Rome, with the noted thinker Pliny the Elder.
Pliny was a curious man and wrote a vast encyclopaedia of Natural History, comprising 37 books.
In Book 10, he writes about ostriches: “…they imagine, when they have thrust their head and neck into a bush, that the whole of their body is concealed”.
Pliny’s Natural History was a collection of information gathered from other sources, so the original ostrich observer remains a mystery.
While Pliny had many admirable qualities, knowledge of African culture and wildlife wasn’t high among them. In Book 5 he writes of a tribe in Africa, who “are said to have no heads, their mouths and eyes being seated in their breasts”.
As most of his readers were unlikely to ever see an ostrich in person, they may not have doubted his accounts. Maybe this ostrich ‘fact’ spread, changing slightly through the years to its current form.
Why Did People Believe Ostriches Bury Their Head in the Sand?
In Pliny’s time, the world seemed a lot smaller, and information wasn’t so readily available. Therefore, it’s not surprising that many statements didn’t get fact checked.
Yet the ostrich head in sand myth has persisted millennia later. Could there be even a tiny bit of truth to this rumour?
Ostriches burying their heads – sort of
One aspect of ostrich behaviour could be responsible for the head in sand myth.
In the breeding season, ostriches dig shallow holes in which to lay their eggs. After laying, both parents will take turns incubating them.
During these egg-sitting shifts, the parents will sometimes get up to turn the eggs with their beak. From a distance, the ostrich lowering its long neck into the dirt might appear to be burying its head.
It’s a bit of a stretch, but there aren’t many other explanations.
Grazing in the grass
Ostriches don’t just bend down during parenting duties; they also do so while feeding.
Ostriches have a versatile diet and feed by both browsing and grazing. While they sometimes browse the higher branches of trees and shrubs, they spend more of their time grazing on grasses, roots, and seeds on or close to the ground.
The omnivorous birds also peck at insects and other small animals on the savanna or desert floor.
One slightly strange ostrich fact is that they swallow stones, which aid digestion by grinding down harder foods in their gizzards.
Since ostriches spend much of the day feeding with their heads lowered to the ground, there are many times where their head is obscured by grass, dirt, or foliage.
To a casual observer, the ostrich might look like it’s hiding its head in the sand.
Ostrich Intelligence: Are Ostriches Stupid?
Rating animals based on intelligence is always tricky, especially when they’re so different to humans.
Comparing ostriches to their contemporaries, they’re not the brainboxes of the bird world.
Corvids (the crow family) and parrots are generally considered to be the smartest avians, with excellent problem-solving abilities and even language skills.
It’s true that ostriches have small brains – smaller than their eyes, in fact. Yet ostriches have unusually large eyes, which are helpful for seeing long distances and spotting predators.
Brain size is related to intelligence, but it’s not as simple as saying a larger brain always equals a smarter animal.
This general view of the ostrich as a ‘stupid’ animal might be why people believed it buried its head in the sand. And without a knowledge of ostrich behaviour, some things do seem unintelligent – like eating stones, for example.
In the past, people wouldn’t have known that the swallowed stones are for breaking down tough plant matter, or that the bird’s head was only ‘disappearing’ as it tended to its eggs or fed.
With so much more knowledge about the natural world at our disposal, it’s time for the myth of the ‘stupid’ ostrich burying its head in the sand to die.
How Do Ostriches Survive?
Ignoring your problems won’t get you far in the African wilderness, especially if those problems have sharp teeth and claws and you’re a flightless bird.
Ostriches have carved out a niche for themselves in an unforgiving environment, so they must have some survival skills. Which begs the question: how do ostriches survive?
Ostriches have the same options as many prey species – run, hide, or stand and fight. Which option they choose depends on the situation.
When you’re as fast as an ostrich, you can leave most African predators in your rear-view mirror.
Ostriches can reach an eye-watering 70 km/h top speed. More impressively, they can run at 60 km/h for sustained periods. That certainly makes up for not being able to fly.
As the fastest animal on two legs, the only African predators quicker than an ostrich are cheetahs and lions.
Despite being slower in a sprint, ostriches can outpace these predators over a longer distance. As long as predators don’t get too close with an ambush, the world’s biggest bird has a good chance to escape.
The simplest and most energy-efficient ostrich survival tactic is to stay put. Ostriches do hide their heads, just not below the ground.
The world’s tallest bird can stand up to 2.8 metres tall, which makes it a conspicuous sight. Even while sitting down, the ostrich’s long neck makes it easier for predators to spot a potential snack.
That’s why ostriches will often lay their necks out on the ground in front of them when hiding. If the grass is long enough, the ostrich may indeed ‘disappear’ from view. Ostriches also sleep in this position.
Standing their ground
Animals generally avoid conflict, and ostriches would much rather run or hide than square up to a predator. Yet, in certain situations the ostrich will stand its ground.
When they have chicks to defend, ostriches are notoriously feisty, and these proud parents will fiercely protect their offspring.
Bluffing is the best strategy to begin with. They’ll fluff up their feathers and spread out their wings to appear bigger.
Predators are always reluctant to risk injury, so if the ostrich can stop would-be attackers seeing it as an easy meal this might be all that’s needed.
As a last resort, an ostrich will use its most potent weapon: its feet. Ostriches only have two toes on each foot, but on the end of each larger toe is a long, sharp claw. When threatened, the ostrich can kick out powerfully.
There’s no need for the ostrich to bury its head when it can bury its claws in an attacker instead!
Spot Ostriches on Safari
Do ostriches bury their heads in the sand? By now, it should be clear that the answer is no.
While there’s no single definitive reason for the ostrich head in sand myth, there are several behaviours which could explain parts of it.
Ostriches aren’t winning any awards for intelligence, but they’re smarter than people give them credit for. They’ve managed to survive in tough conditions and adapt to their environment.
Ostriches will only ‘bury’ their heads out of sight for good reason, whether it’s tending to their eggs, feeding on the ground, or hiding themselves to evade predation.
So, if you want to spot an ostrich burying its head in the sand, you’re out of luck. Those merely wanting to catch a glimpse of one of the most impressive birds on the planet, however, have a great chance.
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