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Do Ostriches Really Bury Their Heads in the Sand?

By Kathy Hawkins
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Contrary to popular belief, ostriches do not actually bury their heads in the sand. The ostrich, also known as Struthio camelus, is the largest type of bird in the world, often weighing more than 400 pounds (181.4 kg), and as tall as 8.9 feet (2.7 meters). It is a flightless bird, and is native to Africa. It is related to other large flightless birds, such as the emu.

According to legends, ostriches have a tendency to bury their heads in the sand as a way to avoid danger, but there is no scientific evidence to show that this is true. Some believe that the idea comes from the fact that ostriches ingest sand and pebbles, which help them swallow their food; people may have noticed them picking up pebbles in their mouths and believed that the ostriches were burying their heads instead.

Another possible source of the idea could be the scientific fact that, when threatened, the ostrich will fall forward in the sand and lay its head to the ground, so that its body will resemble a bush to passing predators. This action is especially common when the ostrich is attempting to protect its eggs. Because the head and neck are the same color as the sand, to an observer, it may look as though the ostriches bury their heads in the sand.

Today, people are often said to bury their heads in the sand when they refuse to confront or deal with a problem, and choose to deny it. The saying comes from the belief about ostriches, which was first recorded by Roman writer Pliny the Elder. Now that we know ostriches do not actually do this, perhaps the phrase should be corrected. Ostriches are not as stupid as people seem to think.

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Discussion Comments
By ellafarris — On Jun 01, 2011

On our family vacation we stopped in Arizona at one of the largest ostrich farms in the United States. It was really very interesting and quite entertaining as well. There must have been a thousand or more birds on their ranch.

They really do serve ostrich eggs in the restaurant and to my surprise they’re actually very good. One egg costs about fifteen dollars and is equal to about twenty four chicken eggs. An ostrich egg omelet definitely could feed the neighborhood.

I just had to visit the gift shop before we left. I’d had my eye on a true ostrich feather duster since we arrived and boy do these things really work. There isn’t a spec of dust left on my computer screen. A few other items they sell are hollowed out eggs, colored eggs, fresh eggs, t-shirts, caps and ostrich jerkey.

It’s a lot of fun for the kids if you’re ever out that way. The ranch isn’t that far off Hwy Ten and it only costs about two dollars, plus they give you a huge cup of food and let you feed the birds.

By ladyjane — On May 30, 2011

I used to work at the zoo and little kids would always ask me, “Why do ostriches bury their heads in the sand?” Don’t be silly, ostriches couldn’t breathe if they buried their heads in the sand, I would tell them.

The myth is most likely derived from their nesting habits. The male bird uses his bill to dig out a hole in the ground as a nest for his mates to lay their eggs in. And sometimes the female puts her head in the hole when she needs to turn the eggs.

If you ever have the opportunity to watch them when their nesting it really does look like they’re trying to bury their heads in the sand

By accordion — On Jan 28, 2011

I think that it is not surprising that this isn't true. I always thought, "Why do ostriches bury their heads in the sand?" It seems like such a silly thing for a wild animal to do.

By afterall — On Nov 06, 2010

It's almost unfortunate that this is not true, since "burying your head in the sand" has become such a common idiom in English. At the same time, I suppose that this is true for many idioms, that they turn out to be more based on myth than fact.

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