A popular myth claims that ostriches bury their heads in the sand in order to avoid conflict.
The myth holds that ostriches bury their heads in the sand in order to avoid conflict, evoking the somewhat humorous image of the world’s largest bird foolishly believing whatever problem exists will disappear as it “hides” its small head. This theory is perhaps made more believable by the assumption that ostriches are unintelligent creatures due to the small size of their heads.
The myth is said to date back to the first century, when Pliny the Elder wrote in Book 10, Chapter 1, “…they imagine, when they have thrust their head and neck into a bush, that the whole of their body is concealed.”
The image of an ostrich hiding its head in the sand has has become a visual representation for the metaphor that burying one’s head in the sand is how people ignore or refuse to acknowledge problems in their lives.
The fact is that this myth simply isn’t true.
Several writers have addressed the topic and some have surmised that the myth comes an ostrich behavior referred to by one writer as “laying low.” This is when the ostrich “flops to the ground and remains still, with its head and neck flat on the ground in front of it.” Ostriches use this technique to deal with a threat when they are unable to run away. Laying low is thought to give the ostrich’s body the appearance of a rock or shrub because its neck can blend in with the nearby sand. It is possible that people viewing this behavior could have mistakenly believed that the bird’s head was buried.
Glinda Cunningham of the American Ostrich Association told National Geographic that the myth is an “optical illusion,” noting that when seen picking at the ground from a distance, “it may look like their heads are buried in the ground.” The birds pick the ground in order to nibble at food or build nests for their eggs. Additionally, when building nests for their eggs – which can reach 8 feet wide and 3 feet deep – the ostrich puts its head in the hole to turn the eggs several times a day, giving the illusion that the bird had buried its head.
The blog WildlifeTV points to yet another theory which states that ostriches lower their heads to “scan the horizon for threats” which could be mistaken for the bird burying its head.
A 2008 article by the Daily Mail offered a variation of the “picking” theory, stating that “…ostriches swallow sand and pebbles to help grind up food in their stomachs. This means they have to bend down and briefly stick their heads in the earth to collect the pebbles.”
It has been pointed out that ostriches can sprint about 40 miles per hour, making their speed a more likely solution to dealing with danger than burying their heads.
Photos of ostriches with their heads in the ground are staged, usually by a photographer who placed food in a hole, which prompts the bird to insert its head to access the treat. More recent images of ostriches with their heads in the sand are often created digitally.
Ostriches do not bury their heads in the sand to avoid danger. A variety of theories have been offered to explain this myth, which is believed to date back at least 2,000 years.