Do Ostriches Really Bury Their Heads in the Sand?

By: Bambi Turner  | 

Ostriches have many natural defenses including their super speed, so why do we think of them as timid, frightful and more apt to flight than fight?
Ostriches have many natural defenses including their super speed, so why do we think of them as timid, frightful and more apt to flight than fight?
Ingram Publishing/Thinkstock

When frightened, ostriches instinctively bury their heads in the sand in the hopes that trouble will pass them by -- or so the legend goes. In reality, ostriches don't bury their heads in the sand to avoid danger. Not only would they be unable to breathe, but when you think about it, they really have no reason to do so.

Ostriches are the fastest animals on two legs, capable of running as fast as 40 miles per hour for a brief period if they have to outrun trouble. Endurance isn't an issue either for these birds – they can sprint at a brisk 30 miles per hour for a full 10 miles straight if needed [source: Stewart].

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If this impressive speed isn't enough, ostriches have plenty of other defenses. They stand around 9 feet tall and weigh in at a whopping 350 pounds. If threatened, they can deliver a kick powerful enough to kill a lion [source: San Diego Zoo].

Clearly, ostriches have plenty of natural defenses and little reason to hide. So where did the myth that they bury their heads in the sand originate? Call it good parenting.

When it's time to start a family, the ostrich digs a massive hole measuring between 6 and 8 feet wide and 2 to 3 feet deep. They bury the eggs safely in the ground, then mom and dad take turns sitting on the eggs to protect them until they're ready to hatch. A few times a day, the ostrich parents dip their heads below the ground to gently turn the eggs using their beaks [source: American Ostrich Association]. This relatively brief head-duck -- which lasts only as long as it takes the ostrich to inspect and arrange the eggs to its satisfaction -- may have given rise to the head-burying myth.

The legend could also be attributed to the fact that a nesting ostrich who senses danger may flop down with his head and neck flat against the ground in hopes that potential predators won't spot him. In this position, he can potentially blend into the terrain, though his head never actually goes underground [source: San Diego Zoo].

Of course, even flopping to the ground and hoping trouble passes by isn't the bird's first instinct; he only takes this path if he can't outrun the trouble or fight it off. When he has eggs to protect, instinct tells the ostrich to run, spurring predators to pursue him [source: American Ostrich Association]. Thanks to their superior speed, ostriches are likely to easily outrun any animals that dares to chase them, leaving their eggs and themselves free from harm.

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Originally Published: Apr 22, 2015

Ostrich FAQ

Where do ostriches come from?
An ostrich is a large kind of flightless bird native to Africa. They used to also be found wild all over Asia and the Arabian Peninsula, but the bird was hunted to extinction in those areas. Ostriches now live in captivity, from zoos to farms, all over the world.
What is Ostrich Syndrome?
It's a common myth that ostriches bury their head in the sand in the face of danger to avoid it. Though this isn’t actually true, Ostrich Syndrome is named after this popular belief. It’s is a form of avoidance coping that people use to manage uncomfortable feelings or rather, not deal with them.
What does it mean to “bury your head in the sand?”
"Burying your head in the sand" is a saying that means that a person is intentionally avoiding having to face something negative. People may do this in areas from finances to public speaking to confrontation.
Why do ostriches eat sand and pebbles?
Ostriches don’t have teeth. So to help them digest their food, they swallow small pebbles, which make their way into the ostrich’s stomach, breaking down the food and helping with digestion. Many birds do this.
What's the difference between an emu and an ostrich?
Emus and ostriches look similar, but they’re very different. Ostriches have two toes and can run up to 40 mph. Emus have three toes and can only run up to 30 mph. Ostriches can also grow up to double the weight of an emu at 300 lbs. But perhaps the biggest difference is where they’re native to. While ostriches come from Africa, emus originate from Australia.

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Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • American Ostrich Association. "Fact or Fiction?" Date Unknown. (Oct. 15, 2014). http://ostriches.org/fact-or-fiction/
  • San Diego Zoo. "Ostrich." Date Unknown. (Oct. 15, 2014) http://animals.sandiegozoo.org/animals/ostrich
  • Stewart, Doug. "A Bird Like No Other." National Wildlife Federation. Aug. 1, 2006. (Oct. 15, 2014). http://www.nwf.org/news-and-magazines/national-wildlife/birds/archives/2006/a-bird-like-no-other.aspx