Fact Check

Have Ostriches Pulled Off Their Own Heads?

We wanted to bury our heads in the sand after watching this video.

Published June 16, 2021

 (Yathin S Krishnappa)
Image courtesy of Yathin S Krishnappa
Claim:
Ostriches have been recorded accidentally decapitating themselves.

In June 2021, a disturbing video was shared on social media that supposedly showed an ostrich decapitating itself as it struggled to free its head after it got stuck between a bar and a wall on a farm. We have not been able to source this specific footage (it was first circulated on the Chinese microblogging site Weibo and reportedly shows an incident that took place on an ostrich farm in China on June 5, 2021), but we have found a surprising number of reports of ostriches accidentally breaking their own necks (and in some cases pulling off their own heads) in a panic.

The video may be disturbing to some viewers, so we won't include it here. If you want to see it for yourself (Warning: NSFW video depicting animal gore) you can watch it here.

For those who would prefer not to view the video, here's a description of the incident from the Chinese-language newspaper Enanyang.my (translated roughly via Google):

A recent bloody video of an ostrich tearing its head off went viral on Weibo. The incident happened on the 5th of this month when an ostrich accidentally stuck its head into the gap between an iron rod and a wall at an ostrich farm in China. In struggling with all strength to get out of trouble, the ostrich unexpectedly pulled off his head. The scene is shocking.

It can be seen in the picture that the trapped ostrich kept backing up, trying to pull its head out of the gap, but to no avail, so he pulled back hard. Unexpectedly, this force pulled the ostrich's head and neck apart.

The ostrich is a large, flightless bird that stands more than 8 feet tall, and nearly half of that height is from their 3-foot-long necks. While this long and flexible neck has some benefits (an ostrich can turn its head 180 degrees in order to see potential predators), there are downsides as well. We've found multiple reports over the years of ostriches that have accidentally killed themselves after getting their heads stuck.

United Press International reported in 1935 that an ostrich at a zoological garden in Germany accidentally broke its neck while trying to reach some food outside of its cage:

In 1997, a similar incident was reported at an ostrich farm in Florida. The Orlando Sentinel reported that a farmer was shocked and saddened when he discovered the headless body of one of their ostriches. The exact cause of death in that case is unknown, but Ed McDonough, a spokesperson for the Seminole County Sheriff's Office, said that the bird likely lost its head after it got stuck underneath a fence:

"It was a clean break, too," McDonough said. "Like you would pull the head off a doll - 'pop.' "

Investigators speculate the ostrich may have caught its head underneath a fence, then been stepped on by another bird. The missing part may be buried in the sandy soil, McDonough said.

Reports of ostriches accidentally decapitating itself date back to at least the 1890s when Martin Annie described in their book "Home Life On An Ostrich Farm" how one of these big birds lost its life.

"One of T____'s birds performed the "happy despatch" in quite a novel manner. Seeing a tempting quince growing on the further side of a hedge, he squeezed his head and neck through a narrow fork in the branches to reach it. Having secured and eaten his prize, he tried to draw his head back. But what was difficult enough before was now impossible; his neck, bulging with the quince, kept him a prisoner, there was no one at hand to help, and the more he tugged and jumped in the frenzied manner of ostriches when held by the head, the more firmly he stuck. And he was found at last, with his neck broken, and his head, to all intents and purposes, pulled off.

Dan Evon is a former writer for Snopes.

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