Why Do We Say We’re Burying Our Heads in the Sand?

Even if you haven’t heard this expression before, it’s probably pretty self-explanatory. If someone is going to get described as burying their head in the sand, you’re probably going to pick up that they’re deliberately trying to remain ignorant to something. But on its face, the expression seems pretty specific. Why do we say we’re burying our heads in the sand?

Ostriches

The idea of burying your head in the sand is largely associated with ostriches, which are said to stick their heads into dirt when under some kind of threat. You know, because if there’s a predator coming to eat you and you bury your head, the giant animal about to eat you will no longer eat you. On account of being unable to see you, since if you can’t see it, it definitely can’t see you either. Definitely. 

But you might have known that already. You’re probably more interested in where or when we started recording this phenomenon. Luckily, we tracked this down to a guy named Gaius Plinius Secundus. Better known as Pliny the Elder. Pliny is funnier, so we’ll go with that. 

Old Pliny lived from 23 (or 24) AD to 79 AD, and he was an author and natural philosopher. This is another way of saying Pliny liked to go outside and record the stuff that he saw. He put together this thing called Natural History, which came in a series of 37 books. The first 10 were published in 77 AD, but the work didn’t have its final revision until after 79 AD. Natural History was published after the death of Pliny the Elder by his nephew. Pliny the Younger. 

They were creative with names. 

In Natural History, Pliny describes the ostrich for us:

 “They have the marvelous property of being able to digest every substance without distinction, but their stupidity is no less remarkable; for although the rest of their body is so large, they imagine, when they have thrust their head and neck into a bush, that the whole of the body is concealed.”

But Do Ostriches Actually Do That?

As Pliny put it, the idea of sticking your head into the dirt (or a bush) and pretending your impending doom isn’t coming is a profoundly stupid way to avoid death. 

Well, unfortunately for our new favorite idiom (perhaps fortunately for the ostrich), these birds don’t actually stick their heads into the sand when threatened. For starters, it wouldn’t be very simple logistically—especially if the dirt is kind of packed in and hard. Also, they wouldn’t be able to breathe all that well.

Plus, ostriches can run both really far and really fast. They could run an entire marathon in less than an hour, with a top speed pushing 50 miles per hour. Also, they have velociraptor feet.

Further Reading: What Animal Runs the Longest?

Anyway, the ostrich would be much better serviced running away from a potential predator than it would sitting still. Remember when we said they had velociraptor feet? Well they can use them offensively too—these 350 pound birds can deliver a kick strong enough to put down a lion. 

So… was this all some weird prank?

So, did Pliny just… Make it all up? Was this all just some elaborate prank for us to discover centuries later? 

Well, it turns out, probably not. Ostriches are actually known to bury their heads, sort of. It’s just not when they’re under threat. When ostriches get around to making baby ostriches, they dig a pretty big hole into the ground. This hole is often somewhere between six and eight feet wide, and two to three feet deep. They then bury their eggs into these holes, and then sit on them to incubate the eggs until they’re ready to hatch. However, ostriches are known to stick their heads into these holes to check on their eggs. 

When a threatened ostrich doesn’t plan on running, it might instead try to hide. In order to conceal its massive frame, an ostrich will put its head and neck flat onto the ground. This minimizes the ostrich’s profile and helps it blend in from a distance. Definitely reasonable for someone to mistake this for sticking their head into the dirt if they couldn’t get a good view. Especially since going up close to check seems like a bad idea. On account of the velociraptor feet. 


See if you know your other animals, that probably don’t bury their heads in the sand, here.

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