You may have heard people use the phrase “Oh! He is just burying his head in the sand like an ostrich!” to denote that the person is in denial of a problem. In doing so, the said person hopes that the problem will go away.
But have you ever stopped and thought about whether ostriches truly bury their heads in the sand when they sense danger? Legends say “yes”, but biological science says “no”.
So, why do ostriches get such a bad rap? And if burying their head in the sand is a myth, then what do ostriches do when they are chased by predators? Read on to find out interesting facts concerning ostriches.
What are Ostriches Like?
To understand more about why ostriches burying their head in the sand is a pure myth, let’s first get to know these flightless birds a little better.
Ostriches are large birds, native to Africa. They live comfortably grazing through the forests of savanna alongside giraffes and zebras. They have small heads but immensely long legs. And even though they cannot fly, they do have quite attractive wings, especially the males.
Moreover, ostriches are known as camel birds as they resemble the camel not only in looks but also in characteristics. They feel one with nature when dwelling in the harsh deserts of Africa and can sustain themselves with limited food and water for days, just like camels.
Ostriches are anything but cowards. Their nature is exactly opposite to the myth that says they “bury their head in the sand” to avoid danger.
The Origin of the Myth
Now you’re probably thinking that if ostriches are not stupid and coward as they are portrayed in the idiom, where did the myth come from? Well, while it’s true that ostriches do not bury their head in the sand, it may seem like they are doing so in a couple of circumstances.
One, when in danger, they sometimes flop to the ground placing their head and neck so close to the earth they are almost camouflaged. This behavior was first noted by Pliny the Elder, a thinker of the Roman times.
He wrote in one of his books that ostriches imagine their whole body is hidden if they just conceal their head and neck. Pliny’s observation could very well have been the foundation of the myth.
In another theory, ostriches are seen to dig holes in the ground to turn their eggs after laying them. And when they do so, they appear to be burying their necks. This characteristic may also have given rise to the myth.
What Happens if an Ostrich Does Bury its Head in Sand?
In normal circumstances, such as when they dig the earth for nesting, they do bury their heads in the sand for a few moments. But that’s a part of their natural reproduction cycle and causes no harm.
Then there is also the scenario where an ostrich eats sand and pebbles and appears to have buried its head in search of food. In this instance, too, it’s a normal way of life for these camel birds.
In rare cases, when the ostrich is forced to bury its head in the sand, predator or no predator, the most obvious thing would happen. It would die of asphyxiation. So, you see, in this context, ostriches are not much different from us or other animals that live above the ground.
How Do Ostriches Defend Themselves?
We talked about how ostriches flop their bodies on the ground when they sense danger. But that’s not their first mode of defense.
Ostriches typically live among small herds, which ensures that at least one of them will spot the danger way ahead of time, thanks to their long necks and big eyes. And when they do, their first instinct is to run like the wind.
Yes, no matter how stupid and coward the myth would have you believe that this large bird is, they certainly can run! How fast? To escape immediate danger, they can sprint at 43 miles an hour, and then continue to run steadily for hours together at a speed of 31 miles an hour.
In situations where they come face to face with a predator before they could run, they still don’t hide. Instead, they ferociously kick.
A kick of an ostrich is said to be so powerful it can kill a lion. Of course, not that you would encounter such a bird in your daily life, but if you happen to, steer clear. One kick from it and you’d end up in the hospital with a broken bone.
Fact Vs Fiction
So many idioms and adages have existed for so long that they have been ingrained into our minds in a way that we don’t stop and question. When you break them down and try to understand their origin, you’d be surprised to know how many of them are pure fiction.
Now that you know more about these charming birds of Africa, you will perhaps refrain from using the phrase “burying your head in the sand” to reprimand a stupid person.
Even if you do use the phrase, hopefully, you will keep the words “like an ostrich” out of it. Let’s gradually turn it over and use “run like an ostrich” instead!