They may look goofy, but ostriches are nobody’s fool

Forget the dim-witted stereotype. These big birds are shrewd survivors in a world of predators.

Standing tall at the southern tip of Africa, a male ostrich surveys the shore near the Cape of Good Hope. Growing up to nine feet tall and 300 pounds, Earth’s biggest bird has no shortage of gangly, comic appeal—but this bird is no easy mark for its enemies.

Most of us happily get by on a single cartoonish idea about ostriches: They’re the big birds that bury their heads in the sand in times of crisis, supposedly thinking that if they can’t see danger, danger can’t see them.

In our ragbag of stereotypes, ostriches have thus become the quintessential dim-witted animals. Even the Bible says they’re dumb, and bad parents too.

The head-in-sand idea is a threadbare, 2,000-year-old hand-me-down from the Roman naturalist Pliny, who sometimes passed on tall tales. Think about it. Ostriches have long, bony legs, a torso held aloft like a great floating raft of flesh and feathers, and a neck like a periscope, topped by a wedge-shaped head with eyes bigger than an elephant’s, at a height of up to nine feet. It is an unlikely design for head-burying.

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