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Debunked: Do ostriches bury their heads in the sand when scared?

Or could that just be according to a book published in 77AD?

This ostrich looks mildly shocked about something.
This ostrich looks mildly shocked about something.
Image: kkirugi via Flickr/Creative Commons

IN THIS SERIES, TheJournal.ie takes a look at an urban myth, old wives’ tale, or something that your mammy told you years ago to see if there’s any truth in it.

Could one inaccurate statement, from a book first published around 77AD, still be a common belief almost two millennia later?

One from Pliny The Elder’s mammoth encyclopaedia “The Natural History” did just that. It’s his only surviving work after he was killed and his books destroyed in the volcanic eruption which encased the Roman city of Pompeii for centuries.

He dedicates the first chapter of the section on birds to the ostrich, where he penned this little sentence:

“… but their stupidity is no less remarkable; for although the rest of their body is so large, they imagine, when they have thrust their head and neck into a bush, that the whole of the body is concealed.”

Everyone took his word for it, and so began the idea that ostriches behave like this when they’re scared, burying their heads in the sand.

However, we’ve studied animals in a lot more detail in subsequent years than ol’ Pliny did back then. He believed the reptiles were “produced from the spinal marrow of a man” and that turtles and blackbirds will often join forces to fight foxes. So was he also a little off about ostriches as well?

TheJournal.ie spoke to a man who might know a thing or two about that particular fowl. John McLaughlin, a Wildlife Warden at Fota Wildlife Park, confirmed that an ostrich will not bury their head in the sand, and the notion that they will is “absolutely a myth”.

Poking around on the ground

His own observation is that, from a distance, ostriches sometimes appear to have their head buried in the sand. Pliny must have assumed they were scared due to the presence of humans, when they were actually more than likely just eating or having a poke around their nest.

“Since they graze off the ground, they spend a lot of time looking around for bugs and insects” John explained, “and they may also be tending to chicks.”

They will often large hole to build their nest in, as their eggs are quite large. And if they are feeding chicks or turning eggs? It will look like they’ve their head in the sand.

Now that you know that ostriches don’t try to hide from danger, it’s still best to avoid them. They’re classed as a dangerous animal, and if they’re angry with you, you probably won’t be able to outrun them.

That said, they can make great jogging partners*.
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*Not really. Still just don’t go near them.

Is there a myth you’d like debunked? Email nicky@thejournal.ie.

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