November, when you think about it, is one of the bird-iest months. Birds are constantly overhead, flying south for the winter. It’s the month when Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” died in 1963 (the day before the Kennedy assassination, by the way) as well as the month when Sesame Street’s Big Bird made his TV debut. And of course, it’s the month when families gather around the dinner table to enjoy a big roasted bird with all the trimmings — except in Canada, where Thanksgiving is observed in October. (Damn Canadians, they get all the good stuff before us. New DeGrassi episodes, Thanksgiving, universal health care…) This is all by way of explaining why we asked Jeopardy!’s Ken Jennings to debunk a flock of bird-related myths for us this month.
Bird Myth #1: Ostriches Bury Their Heads in the Sand.
It was commonly believed by the Greeks and Romans that the ostrich, the largest bird on earth, would try to avoid danger by hiding its head somehow, perhaps under vegetation. The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder pointed out what a terrible idea this was, writing, “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 their body is concealed.”
This has become such common knowledge that economists even speak of an “ostrich effect” when people act in denial of bad financial news. But Pliny was right: the ostrich effect is stupid. In fact, it’s so stupid that ostriches never do it. For one thing, they don’t need to. Ostriches can run away from trouble at speeds over forty miles an hour, have four-inch claws, and can kick with enough force to kill a lion.
If its powerful legs let it down, an ostrich does have one last line of defense, which probably helped inspire the “head in the sand” legend. It will flop down on the ground and lay its head and neck flat on the ground, hiding in plain sight because its sandy-colored upper parts blend in nicely with the savannah. But that’s a far cry from the head-burying Pliny scoffed at. Denial just ain’t an animal behavior in Egypt.
Quick Quiz: What three-toed relative of the ostrich is the largest bird in Australia?
Ken Jennings is the author of Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and the forthcoming Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.
Photo by Flickr user wwarby. Used under a Creative Commons License.