A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Do ostriches really bury their heads in the sand?

May 26, 1999

Dear Straight Dope:

I remember watching cartoons as a little kid and one thing I always remember is about ostriches. Whenever they got scared they would bury their heads under the ground. I found out later that they could do no such thing in real life. So where did this gag originate, and when was it first used?

The expression "burying your head in the sand" usually refers to one who is timid or in denial, trying to ignore a problem. I jog by a pen of ostriches during my lunch hour and they look like pretty aggressive bastards to me-- not at all timid. They're always picking on each other. Ostriches lower their heads sometimes when they fight, but nobody would mistake that behavior for hiding in the sand or ignoring a problem.

Ostriches (Struthio camelus, of the ratite group of flightless birds, which also includes emus, rheas, the kiwi of New Zealand, and a couple of others) are often described in the literature as being docile, peaceful animals, so apparently what I see in that pen is not common behavior among wild specimens. But an ABC news report called "Safe Sex for Ostriches" told of captive-raised ostriches from different parts of Africa--varying in size and courtship behaviors--being thrown in the same pen and fighting. This is a big problem for ostrich farmers in Israel. "If you put two ostriches of incompatible size in a pen, they'll first try to mate," explains Israel Rozenboim, an animal science researcher with Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "However, after two or three tries, they get frustrated and start to kick each other."

The solution is to use a human ostrich handler (snicker) as an intermediary in the mating game. After gaining the ostriches' trust, the handler can bring the two ostriches close together. "As the male ostrich becomes aroused, the handler collects his semen in a test tube." "Collects"? I wish there'd been more of a description of how exactly somebody would do this. Apparently the handler first mimics the female ostrich love call using Hebrew words, and offers both birds an assortment of ostrich goodies, like alfalfa and hay.

Little to do with the "head in the sand" topic, I know, but too good not to include. Back to your question.

There are two theories about how this rumor got started. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, the ostrich lowers its head toward the ground in reaction to danger, especially when it's sitting on a nest (the female keeps the eggs warm during the day and the male sits on the eggs at night.). "To escape detection, chicks as well as adults may lie on the ground with neck outstretched," the Encyclopedia Britannica adds. Supposedly the ostrich hopes its enemy will mistake it for a termite mound or low bush when its head is lowered. Seeing as an ostrich is the world's largest bird weighing as much as 400 pounds, I doubt they fool anyone but the blindest hyena. I'm one to talk, though. I almost walked into an elephant seal on a California beach once and those suckers are huge.

Male ostriches use their bills to dig shallow nests in the sand and move their eggs around. From a distance, this could look like the ostrich's head is disappearing in the sand. That's the other theory.

I always like to point people to helpful Websites for further information, and here is a pretty comprehensive one (among gazillions of ostrich sites on the Web for some reason) for the budding ostrich farmers among you: www.ostrichesonline.com. Sorry to say I learned here that we just missed OstrichFest98, which was held in Tulsa in November. That means we missed the opportunity to bid on "rare antique ostrich lithographs" (as compared to the really common, cheesy modern ones). One of the many workshops offered at OstrichFest was Ostrich Tanning. It took me a moment to get that picture of an ostrich lying on a beach towel out of my head.

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