(Investigator 147, 2012 November)


The Bible says:
The ostrich's wings flap wildly,
though its pinions lack plumage.
For it leaves its eggs to the earth,
and lets them be warmed on the ground,
forgetting that a foot may crush them,
and that a wild animal may trample them.
It deals cruelly with its young,
as if they were not its own;
though its labour should be in vain, yet it has no fear;
because God has made it forget wisdom,
and given it no share in understanding.
When it spreads its plumes aloft,
it laughs at the horse and its rider.
(NRSV Job 39:14-17)
Roy Pinney (1964) — writer, photographer and naturalist — wrote: "This description is remarkably accurate…"


From the Britannica and biology texts we learn the following:

The ostrich is the largest living bird, a flightless species in Africa, living in open, unforested areas. In Bible times ostriches existed from Syria to Arabia but these became extinct in 1941. Adult males may grow 2.5 metres tall, weigh 150 kilos, and have the biggest eyeballs of any bird — 5cm across. The legs are powerful, with two toes that make formidable weapons, and adapted for fast running.

Breeding males fight for a harem of three to five hens. A hollow is scraped in the ground and forms a communal nest where up to 50 eggs are incubated. The eggs are the world's largest, averaging 1.4 kilos, equivalent to 25 chicken eggs. The male incubates the eggs at night; the females take turns by day. Chicks hatch after 40 days and can keep up with running adults after six weeks. In the wet season herds split into family groups.

During the dry season ostriches, led by a cock or hen, live in flocks of 5 to 50 often among antelopes and zebras. The tall ostrich can see distant predators and give warning while the grazing animals stir up insects, small reptiles and rodents which form part of the ostrich's diet. Ostriches also eat leaves, flowers, seeds, and (when available) locusts, and swallow sand to aid digestion. In deserts succulent plants provide much of their water.


Ostriches may cover some eggs with sand but leave most exposed — "forgetting that a foot may crush them". Critics have charged that ostrich eggs have thick shells hard to break.

However, lions have been filmed attacking ostriches and in the process breaking the eggs. Other large animals can also break ostrich eggs including horses, cattle, camels, hippos, zebras, donkeys, and humans.


Critics have challenged the Bible's claim of cruelty: "It deals cruelly with its young, as if they were not its own."

Possible explanations are:


The ostriches' lack of "wisdom" and "understanding" may refer back to its lack of concern for the chicks. Alternatively, depending on translation and placement of full stops, it refers to its running.

Ostriches can't fly but their wings assist running and make them speedier than horses — "It laughs at the horse…" Fleeing adults cover 4 metres per stride and go 60km per hour.

A fleeing ostrich, however, often runs in large circles rather than a straight line, allowing a slower pursuer to anticipate its course and confront it.


Finally consider an error the Bible avoided. The Roman writer Pliny (23-79) wrote in his Natural History: "But their Stupidity is not less remarkable; for, high as the rest of their Body is, if they hide their Head and Neck in a Bush, they think themselves altogether concealed."

Similarly, in recent centuries we've had the myth that ostriches stick their head in the sand. People unwilling to face facts were often labelled "ostrich head" or told, "Don't stick your head in the sand like an ostrich."

Ostriches, however, don't do what they're accused of. An ostrich on its nest may lower its head when it senses a disturbance — but other animals (and humans) may do that too if they sense danger.

In ancient times science-practice was rare, few people were literate, and myth ruled. Chambers Biographical Dictionary says of Pliny: "His observations, made at second-hand, show no discrimination between the true and the false."

The Bible writers therefore had opportunity to include thousands of common errors in the Bible, but somehow avoided doing so.


The Bible is not just correct about ostriches but in numerous other topics (as regularly shown in Investigator magazine).

That is why many consider it "The word of God."

Burton, M. & Burton, R. (General editors) 1969 Purnell's Encyclopedia of animal life, Volume 4, No. 11, Ostrich, PBC Publishing, pp 1639-1643

Pinney, R. 1964 The Animals in the Bible Lands, Chilton, pp136-138

The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1986, Volume 8, Micropaedia, Ostrich.

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