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Why do people think that ostriches bury their heads in the sand?

on October 7, 2014

You may have found yourself in an argument with someone who is refusing to see sense and listen to you. You may have found yourself saying that they have buried their head in the sand.

It is a common metaphor that is a part of our cultural vocabulary; we use when people are being ignorant of facts, refusing to acknowledge advice or in denial about their situation. It has been commonly used in this way for centuries, since Roman times. But what is the origin of the phrase? It comes from the ancient observations of the behaviour of animals, namely, ostriches. So, why do ostriches bury their heads in the sand? Well the answer is that they don’t.

It has long been believed that ostriches will bury their heads in the sand to avoid predators; that they are so stupid as to believe that by concealing their heads they become invisible to predators. However, the truth is that this is a myth; there has never been any observation of an ostrich burying its head and yet for centuries the idea has stuck with us. There are, however, many behaviours which ostriches perform that might have given rise to this curious myth.

Ostrich Head and Neck (Struthio camelus)

Ostriches (Struthio camelus) are strange and fascinating birds; is it really true that they bury their heads in sand? If not, why do so many people think so? Photo Credits.

The common ostrich (Struthio camelus) is the world’s largest bird (currently alive). It is found across large swathes of sub-Saharan Africa and, historically, North Africa and Arabia. The first recorded occurrence of a belief that they bury their heads comes from Gaius Plinius Secundus, also known as Pliny The Elder (AD 23 – AD 79) a Roman scholar who invented the idea of the encyclopedia. Pliny spent most of his time observing and recording natural phenomena, including the behaviour or wild animals. He was a great author and philosopher who wrote volumes of information about the natural world, however, not all of it turned out to be entirely accurate. So from where did he get his ideas about ostriches? There are several potential explanations.

Gaius Plinius Secundus (aka Pliny the Elder)

Gaius Plinius Secundus (aka Pliny the Elder) was a Roman scholar who wrote about ostriches hiding their heads to evade detection. He was a great naturalist and even invented encyclopedias, but he was wrong on this one issue. Photo Credits.

Ostriches are extremely fast runners. They have long powerful legs that can accelerate them to up to 70 kilometres per hour; clearing 4 or 5 meters in a single bound. Quite rightly, they use their tremendous speed as their first resort when faced with a threat, however, sometimes, they might be trapped or injured or otherwise unable to escape. When they are not able to run, ostriches will lie down as flat as possible, stretching their necks out flat against the ground. Their necks and heads, incidentally, are often the colour of their habitat’s terrain (sandy brown/grey) and so at a casual glance, only their bodies would be visible, perhaps leading to the assumption that they have buried the rest.

Ostriches are omnivorous, eating a wide variety of things, however, they mostly feed on low level vegetable matter such as roots and fallen seeds, as well as invertebrates such as crickets. They also practice geophagia; picking up stones and pebbles from the ground and swallowing them, keeping them in their gizzards to help grind up and digest food. As a result of this diet, ostriches have their heads down at ground level for large amounts of time. Perhaps this has been misinterpreted and has helped propagate the idea of burying their heads.

Male Ostrich (Struthio camelus) Feeding

Ostriches (Struthio camelus) find most of their food on the ground and so have their heads down often. This may have given rise to the idea that they even bury their heads. Photo Credits.

It has also been suggested that ostriches will lower their heads to ground level in order to scan the horizon for threats. They may simply also lower their heads to ground level to be less obvious to prowling predators when they feel nervous. But the idea that they believe that they can conceal themselves completely by hiding their head is unfounded. Pliny the Elder suggested that they also stuck their heads into bushes to achieve the same effect. This notion is born from the idea that ostriches are ‘stupid‘ animals because they have such tiny brains: Ostriches have brains smaller than their own eyeballs (although they do have the largest eyes of any land animal)! In reality, animal cognition is not as simple as saying that a small brain equals a stupid animal. However, their small heads may have contributed to the myth; when their heads are down at ground level, they are so small that they can be difficult to see, this optical illusion may have led people to believe the animals’ heads were in fact buried.

Ostrich Chick (Struthio camelus)

Adult ostriches (Struthio camelus) grow to be the largest birds on the planet, but the start life as very cute chicks! Photo Credits.

Ultimately we have seen that an ancient misconception has turned into a common metaphor for human behaviour and it has been hard to separate the popular myth from the scientific truth ever since. There are many reasons that might explain why Pliny the Elder first wrote about the idea, but ultimately, we may never know where it came from originally.

Much love,

-Nick

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3 responses to “Why do people think that ostriches bury their heads in the sand?

  1. iarxiv says:

    Nice, informative post – enjoyed it! 🙂

  2. Bandi says:

    thanks 🙂 I found this informative and well written, and i think your conclusions make sense. 🙂

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