The Ostrich Strategy

If we believe the old saying, “Bury your head in the sand,” thinking it has something to do with ostriches, we’ll miss seeing the obvious question this raises. Do ostriches really bury their head in the sand when threatened?

The Rumor Detector looks into this mystery.

By Kathleen Couillard

Agence Science-Presse (

The Origin of the Rumor

Expressions about ostriches aren’t brand new by any means.

In the 8th edition of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, published in 1935, we find the first mention in French of the expression “acting like an ostrich” (pratiquer la politique de l’autruche). In his 1882 diary titled Journal intime, the Swiss philosopher Henri-Frédéric Amiel wrote: “You hide your head like an ostrich…”

In English, the expression “hide one’s head in the sand” goes back far further than that. It was used to describe human behavior at the beginning of the 1600s, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms.

We have to go back all the way to Ancient Rome to find the origin of this rumor. Look to Pliny the Elder, who lived in the first century AD. An author and naturalist, he described the strange behavior of ostriches in his giant 37-book Natural History.  

So what did Pliny have to say about ostriches? In Book 10, Chapter 1, he writes: “…they imagine, when they have thrust their head and neck into a bush, that the whole of their body is concealed.”

According to biologist Charles Deeming, author of a 1999 reference book, there is no basis to this rumor. But there are a lot of habits that Pliny would have mistaken for head burial that modern science can explain otherwise.

For example, ostriches are plant eaters. They also eat rocks and sand to help them digest food like other birds. They are the tallest birds in the world, measuring up to 2.8 metres (over 9 feet) high, so they often dip their heads down to the ground to eat plants, rocks and sand. That’s also the case at night, when they sit down to rest.

When they mate, they often keep their head low to the ground in a position of submission.

Moreover, the male ostrich digs a hole in the ground for the female’s eggs. The female will stick her head in this hole when looking after her eggs.   

Therefore, when eating, resting, mating or taking care of eggs, an ostrich will hold its head near or on the ground, which could give the impression that it was burying its head.

According to the Granby Zoo website, this false impression would be even greater in the desert due to the mirage effect.

If Threatened

Ostriches can hear very well and have excellent vision. In fact, their eyes are the largest of any land mammal, and are bigger than their brains! They can detect predators from far away. Their ability to look out for danger is reduced when their head is close to the ground, so they prefer to do that only in the presence of other ostriches.

On top of that, when an ostrich is pursued it can run very fast, up to 70 km/h in short bursts and up to 50 km/h in sustained running. The male can use its great big feet to hurt its enemies. According to the San Diego Zoo, an ostrich can defend itself well against a lion. So this animal doesn’t have a lot of reasons to be scared of predators.

And even when an ostrich is in no position to run, it will lie down and hold its neck close to the ground so that you can’t see its body. A human could well believe that it was burying its head in the sand.


Illusion. Some ostrich behavior can give the impression that it’s burying its head in the sand. But in fact, when threatened, the ostrich is more inclined to run away, or to stand and fight.

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