Published Sunday, February 10, 2013

Stanley Tate column: Old wives' tales are just that


Special to The Newnan Times-Herald

Have you ever wondered if ostriches really stick their heads in the sand to hide? Two of my friends are so sure that they do, and that’s why I am writing this column to try and convince them otherwise.

Ostriches are huge, flightless birds of the African savanna. They are the world’s largest birds: male ostriches stand nine feet high and weigh more than three hundred pounds. That’s the equivalent of 2823 mockingbirds or 43,636 ruby-throated hummingbirds.

Ostriches can also run faster than any other bird. In fact, they can run faster than anything on two legs. They can reach speeds up to forty-five miles per hour, putting them in the same league as the cheetah and the antelope.

Another interesting thing about ostriches is their feet: each has only two toes — one is small and is mostly used for balance and the other one is huge, more like a hoof, with a two-inch-long claw protruding from it. With massive legs and deadly claws, ostriches are capable of defending themselves against any would be predator they can’t outrun.

With such power, speed, and height, ostriches have few natural enemies except for lightning and low branches. Like most wild things, ostriches were doing just fine until they encountered people and a 17th Century fashion designer decided we couldn’t live without an ostrich feather sticking out of our hats. Ostriches were hunted almost to extinction before somebody figured out that they could be raised on farms. Then ostrich farms sprang up all over the world and the market was flooded with farm-raised ostrich feathers, ostrich steaks, ostrich leather, and ostrich eggs; and the wild ostrich was saved. Today most ostriches live either in preserves or on farms.

So where did the notion of ostriches hiding their heads in the sand come from? This myth likely began with Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23-79), who wrote that ostriches “imagine when they have thrust their head and neck into a bush, that the whole body is concealed.” His speculation was given credibility by ostrich behavior. When an ostrich wants to hide by blending in with its surroundings it drops its head and neck to the ground, is very still, and hopes a predator will think that it is just another distant bush.

Ostriches are interesting birds that do some strange things, but the idea that they stick their heads in the sand to hide is a silly old wives’ tale. When ostriches put their heads in the sand they are looking for spare change. In fact, ostriches are so good at finding spare change that in Africa many old men use ostriches on the beach instead of metal detectors. Ostriches are not just better at finding change; they can do it without batteries and without making annoying beeping sounds.

While I am on the subject of myths and old wives’ tales you should know that: you don’t get warts from toads, you don’t have to wait an hour after eating to go swimming, and you won’t die if a garden spider sees your teeth — but cats do have nine lives.

© 2011 The Newnan Times-Herald Inc., Newnan, Georgia. Any unauthorized use, copying or mirroring is prohibited.