Roxie Laybourne: A Bird of Many Feathers

Roxie Collie S. Laybourne (1910-2003), identifying bird feathers, c. 1944 Recently, I noticed a hand-written index card attached to a colleague’s bulletin board full of charts and spreadsheets.  The index card contained four points: 1. Share your knowledge.  2. Keep your mouth shut.  3. Keep an open mind.  Keep it your whole life.  4. Take care of your body.   These four points present a fairly sound, educated approach to life, similar to what one may find on a Zen desk calendar that offers “words of wisdom” for each new day.  However, it was Point 2, “Keep your mouth shut,” that drew my attention; a rather blunt statement unlikely to be found on a feel good calendar.  Such a statement could only be offered by a person of discipline, intelligence, and determination.  The late Roxie Laybourne (1910 – 2003) was such a person, and her four point “rules of success” were revealed to Bill Adair in his November 21, 1999 feature “Roxius Amazingus” published in the St. Petersburg Times.

Roxie Laybourne is a name that hovers among the Smithsonian with admiration.  Even those unfamiliar with her remarkable six-decade career at the Institution have heard her name. Roxie was an ornithologist whose careful, precise study of bird feathers pioneered the field of forensic ornithology.  Throughout her career, Roxie served as a consultant to the United States Military, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the FBI, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the National Transportation Board. 

Raised in Farmville, NC, Roxie was the eldest of fifteen children.  Her father was an auto mechanic, her mother a housewife.  From the time she was just a girl, Roxie was more interested in playing baseball and watching her father tinker on engines rather than learning to sew or attending to the common “womanly pursuits” of the era.  She attended Meredith College, an all-women school in Raleigh, NC, graduating in 1932 with a degree in mathematics and general science.  Her career in science began at the North Carolina State Museum of Natural History, where she was employed as a taxidermist.  This experience nurtured her curiosity in the natural sciences, and led her to study Botany at George Washington University, where she received a Master’s degree in 1950.

Feather Expert Roxie Laybourne  In 1944, with the encouragement of acting Secretary of the Smithsonian Alexander Wetmore, Roxie accepted a temporary appointment in the Division of Birds at the National Museum of Natural History, and was one of few women on staff engaged in scientific endeavors.  Roxie realized her work may be subject to greater scrutiny than that of her male counterparts, and set forth with quiet determination, producing research and results that simply had to be considered based on their merit.  This approach paid dividends; in her own words “the best way to get around discrimination is to do the do the best job you possibly can, and keep your mouth shut – persistence overcomes obstacles.”

Roxie remained with the Smithsonian for forty-four years, serving as Forensic Ornithologist from 1946 – 1988 with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Birds and Mammals Laboratory.  Although she officially “retired” in 1988, she was granted Emeritus status, and continued her work as a Research Associate with the Smithsonian until her death in 2003.  The primary focus of her research was feather identification. 

In 1960 a propeller driven passenger airplane departing from Boston’s Logan Airport crashed into the sea; only 10 of the 72 passengers survived.  The FAA opened an investigation, and upon learning that a flock of starlings collided with the plane just as it left the tarmac, asked Roxie to join their efforts.  By closely analyzing feathers found among the wreckage, Roxie determined it was a flock of European Starlings that damaged the airplane engines, causing the plane to lose power.  This identification helped aviation engineers to design safer aircraft and enabled airport managers to consider methods of scaring or diverting birds away from running aircraft.  It also paved the way for the creation of the first laboratory dedicated entirely to feather identification.  Roxie used her ability to identify not only the particular species of bird, but also details related to family and locale to solve thousands of aviation – bird strike cases. She shared her expertise with graduate students of in a class on feather structure she taught at George Mason University.  “Share your knowledge,” Point 1 of Roxie’s “Rules of Success.”

“Keep an open mind. Keep it your whole life” is a sagely wisdom indeed. Roxie embodied this philosophy, never turning away from a challenge, considering all possibilities, and perhaps most significantly, assessing an individual much as she did a feather, interested in the minute details that reveal unique character and ability.  I suspect the obstacles she faced as a young, brilliant female scientist determined to practice her craft in a predominantly male profession influenced this perspective.  Science demands that you set aside established preconceptions and draw conclusions based on experimentation, evidence, and experience.  

Although I tried, I regret this meager blog post merely touches upon the remarkable woman, scientist, and educator that was Roxie Laybourne.  There are many more details accounting her life and career, and numerous stories that convey her unique spirit.  A personal favorite; Roxie was a life-long sports car enthusiast, who, at the age of 72 bought a Datsun 280ZX, which she reportedly drove like the dickens!  I encourage the reader to explore her life further.  There is a wonderful memorial from The Auk and a second article by Bill Adair

Related Collections

Accession 04-086, Curatorial Records, 1972-2000, National Museum of Natural History (U.S.) Division of Birds, Smithsonian Institution Archives  

Accession 04-056, National Museum of Natural History, Division of Birds Correspondence, 1962-2003Smithsonian Institution Archives     

Accession 13-147, National Museum of Natural History, Division of Birds Curatorial Records, 1970s-1980sSmithsonian Institution Archives       

Record Unit 9610, Oral history interviews with Roxie Collie S. Laybourne, 2001Smithsonian Institution Archives

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