Monday, October 26, 2009

Ostrich Head in Sand

Ostrich Head in Sand
Like many other languages English language is also very rich and descriptive. Someone “hiding their head in the sand, like an ostrich” is said to be foolishly ignoring their problem, while hoping it will magically vanish. The ostrich does many things, but hiding its head in the sand is not one of them.

We have similar situations in Telugu with expressions like 'Kari mingina velaga pandu' . People believe that an elephant eats a wood apple and digests it without breaking the shell! Similarly westerners think an ostrich hides its head when accosted with bad situations. I read this article about ostriches and thought friends would like to read it. Here goes the story!!

That doesn’t stop this metaphor being evocative, and widely used by people in religious studies, political studies, management, military history, sport commerce and the financial markets.

The ostrich is now found only in parts of Africa. It is the largest known bird, up to 2.4 metres high and 155 kg in weight. Ostrich farmers are attracted to the durable ostrich leather, lovely saleable feathers, lean meat and extremely high feed-to-weight-gain ratio (3.5 to 1, much better than cattle at 6 to 1). If scared, the ostrich can run at up to 65 kph. Its kick is powerful enough to bend 10 mm steel rods into right angles, and can easily break a human leg. The ostrich uses its wings for balance (when running) and for courtship and display, when it’s not batting its thick black eyelashes.

Ostriches have three main strategies when attacked. They can run away, they can kick, or they can try to hide (eg, when nursing the eggs). When hiding, they will sometimes lay flat on the ground, with the long neck and head also on the ground. In the rippling heat haze of their native Africa, they can look just like a grassy mound.

The myth that an ostrich will stick its head in the sand, in an effort to hide, may have begun with that great Roman thinker, Pliny the Elder (23-79AD). His real name was Gaius Plinius Secundus. Pliny was a man of intense curiosity about the world around him. His nephew, Pliny the Younger, wrote about him, “He began to work long before daybreak. He read nothing without making extracts; he used even to say that there was no book so bad as not to contain something of value. In the country it was only the time when he was actually in his bath that was exempted from study. When travelling, as though freed from every other care, he devoted himself to study alone. In short, he deemed all time wasted that was not employed in study.”

In 79 AD, Mt. Vesuvius erupted - and covered and then preserved the city of Pompeii. While most people ran away from Vesuvius, Pliny went straight into the danger zone to look, learn and rescue survivors - and died in the attempt. In his honour, the most violent volcanic eruptions (such as Krakatoa) are called ultra-plinian.

Before his death, Pliny had almost completed one of the earliest comprehensive encyclopaediae. His Natural History, in 37 books, was a remarkable attempt to summarise all the knowledge known to the Romans. He claimed that he covered some 20,000 topics, which he partly got out of some 2,000 books, which in turn were written by some 100 authors. In fact, he was one of the first writers to acknowledge other authors from whom he quotes, and also one of the first to have a table of contents. His Natural History remained a fundamental source of knowledge to the West through the Dark Ages.

So what did Pliny have to say of ostriches? In Book 10, Chapter 1, he writes, “…they imagine, when they have thrust their head and neck into a bush, that the whole of their body is concealed”.

Historians assume that this single sentence is the root of the myth about ostriches burying their head in the sand.

There is one interesting ostrich behaviour that comes close to burying their head in the sand. When ostriches feed, they sometimes lay their head flat on the ground to swallow sand and pebbles. The hard grit helps them to grind their food in their crop. From a distance, the ostrich looks like it’s burying its head in the sand.

So will you ever see an ostrich with its head in the sand? Not naturally – but it’s a wacky world that we live in. On the homepage, Claire and Monty Montgomery describe how they visited the Brandywine Ostrich Ranch in Hemet, California, to see and eat ostrich. The owner, Chip Polvoorde, told them how he helped get an ostrich’s head into a hole in the ground, for a movie shoot. Chip’s friend first dug the hole, laced it with yummy ostrich food, and once the unsuspecting bird had shoved its head into the hole, held it there with sheer brute force until they got their shot.

But I’m sure that once the ostrich got loose, it was the camera crew that had to watch the birdie…

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