Sharing A Love of Birds: Roxie Laybourne

On National Bird Day, Roxie Laybourne, the Smithsonian’s bird feather expert, continues to share her love of birds with us all. 

Roxie Collie S. Laybourne (1910-2003), identifying bird feathers, c. 1944 Though Roxie Laybourne may be a well-known topic here in the Smithsonian Institution Archives, there is a good reason she is so popular.  From good advice to her pioneering career to modern day inspiration, her work offers new insight each time we turn to it. 

Laybourne’s interest in natural history began long before she began her career: rather than join her siblings’ games, she preferred to be outdoors as a child.  From this early beginning, she continued to Meredith College, nurturing an independent streak, studying math and general science.  After working at the North Carolina State Museum of Natural Sciences, the National Fisheries Laboratory, and earning a Master’s degree at George Washington University on mosses, Laybourne began a sixty-year career at the National Museum of Natural History with a short-term appointment in the Division of Birds.  Working at different times for both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Museum’s Division of Birds,  she pioneered the new field of forensic ornithology

Over a six-decade career, anyone would make a mark at the Smithsonian, but her sharp mind, energy level and determination ensured she had a large impact.  Over those years, she lived by a few simple rules that guided her career: 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

Portrait of Roxie Laybourne Though each rule is important, the first set her apart.  Though she worked hard – through evenings and weekends, and without vacations – she always had time to share what she knew with others.  Roxie mentored graduate students, taught classes at George Mason University, and evening classes for the public at the Smithsonian.  Her willingness to share her hard-earned knowledge inspired her students to careers in ornithology and beyond.  If you had a sincere interest and were willing to work hard, she would help you. 

Even as early as the 1930s and 1940s, when jobs were scarce and Laybourne was just starting in her career, this commitment was already in full force.  Working at the North Carolina State Museum of Natural History as a taxidermist and a collector, she served as a bird study counselor for Boy Scouts working on their Eagle Award. They became her first generation of students.  While working towards their Eagle Award, the scouts had to pass a test on bird identification.  To help the boys pass the test, Laybourne offered Sunday afternoon bird walks to teach them how to recognize different species. Wartime fuel restrictions meant they didn’t ride anywhere.  She met the boys at the local country club and hiked the edge of the golf course.  All that walking must have done a lot of good – the boys who came for that study group passed their requirements, and most of them became Eagle Scouts.  And Laybourne had hooked them on natural history – many kept it up for the rest of their lives, bringing their own children up to be interested in birds. 

For Roxie, this was all a part of her work, and part of the Smithsonian mission to increase and diffuse knowledge.  She explained, “To me, I feel, when you are given the opportunity to learn, why then you have a responsibility to share it with someone else so that you can have them build on your knowledge and go farther forward than you could by yourself.” 

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