Burying Heads in Sand

By Anupum Pant

So you’re in a fix and you if try hiding from it to remain in a state of denial, what would others, in a popular cultural metaphor, say about that? They’d say you’ve buried your head in the sand. Where do you think this phrase came from?

This phrase has been used since ancient times and comes from an observation made by some person whose name seems to have been lost in the sands of time. It was probably Pliny The Elder – a roman scholar – who first came up with the idea.

Anyway, from what we’ve been told for decades now, it originates from the observed behaviour of an ostrich – a bird though to be so stupid, with a brain so small, that it buries its head in sand and feels safe from the danger, or approaching predators. As if it would help in any way. You get the drift.

It’s true that ostriches have very tiny brains. In fact the volume of their brain is smaller than their eyeballs. Does that really mean the bird is stupid enough to think that immersing its head in sand would make them invisible to predators? No.

Actually, cognition in organisms isn’t directly related to the size of their brains. Smaller brain doesn’t imply an animal is plain stupid. Also, ostriches have never been seen dipping their heads in the sand to avoid being seen by predators. In a study, lasting over a period of 80 years, two hundred thousand ostriches were observed. Not once was an ostrich seen doing that. So why did the observant Roman scholar get it wrong?

That is probably because he must have seen the ostrich lie flat, like they often do when they aren’t able to escape some predator by outrunning them at 70 kilometres per hour. They lie flat, with their heads down and almost merge with their surroundings. They certainly don’t put their heads into the sand. The predators have a good chance of missing that.

Also, ostriches often keep their heads down, near the ground (not inside) while picking stones off it. Keeping their heads down helps them to retain these stones in their gizzards, which then helps them to “chew” the food.

So the next time someone tells you that you’ve buried your head like an ostrich, please inform them that it is just a misconception that has lasted for centuries, and has ultimately turned into an intelligent sounding metaphor to describe human behaviour. It certainly isn’t intelligent. And is very far from the actual scientific truth.

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