Meet Roxie Laybourne, the Feather Detective Who Changed Aviation

A new Sidedoor episode tells the story of Roxy Laybourne, a Smithsonian scientist who pioneered the field of forensic ornithology

Roxie Laybourne's work changed the role of museums in public life by turning the Smithsonian’s collection of thousands of birds into an applied science tool. (Chip Clark, NMNH)

“There will never be another person on this earth like Roxie Laybourne,” says Carla Dove, program manager of the National Museum of Natural History’s Feather Identification Lab. “Her laugh echoed through the hallways.”

In an office just across the hall from the third largest bird collection in the world, Dove looks back fondly on her time learning from and working alongside Laybourne. For Dove, the late Smithsonian scientist and bird expert was a teacher and mentor, and for the scientific community, Laybourne was the woman who pioneered the field of forensic ornithology. Her research in the microscopic identification of feathers, particularly from birds that are hit by airplanes, changed aviation safety.

Dove says that when Laybourne took on her first birdstrike case in 1960, she was one of few women at the Smithsonian employed in a scientific capacity. She had been working as a taxidermist for more than 15 years, preparing bird carcasses for research and display, while developing a deep familiarity with birds.

“She was really into looking at the subtle differences in birds,” Dove says. “When she was skinning them and putting them away, she started to get interested in the subspecific variations of birds.”

Which was why Laybourne was consulted after Eastern Airlines flight 375 tragically crashed into the Boston Harbor just six seconds after takeoff on October 4, 1960. Crash investigators found bits of dark feather inside three of the plane’s four engines and wanted to know what kind of bird the plane had hit.

Roxie Laybourne’s conclusion was a surprising one. The feathers, she concluded, were from a 3-ounce bird called a European starling. The plane had flown into a flock of them, called a murmuration, in which anywhere from hundreds to thousands of starlings fly in swooping, coordinated patterns.

“That's when Roxie became totally into this forensics feather thing,” says Dove.

Since the rise of forensic ornithology, the aviation industry has been able to identify the types of birds that often collide with planes and deter them for the safety of humans, and effectively birds, too. Airports today use dogs, optical illusions, even lasers to keep birds away from hangars and runways.

As the 1960s wore on and the airline industry grew, Laybourne’s skill was in demand. She affectionately became known as “the feather lady” for her ability to identify which bird species were involved in a strike, based on microscopic remains, and created the “Roxie method”—a process that could be replicated for various forensic ornithological cases.

Marcy Heacker, a research assistant who also works in the Feather Identification Lab and also studied under Laybourne, described the Roxie method as a four-step process that is still in use today. Step one is to take a broad look at all physical evidence and consider everything from the time of year the birdstrike took place to where the feathers were collected.

Another step in the Roxie method was to work with the feather material, which often means washing feathers the same way one washes hair in hot water and detergent and blowing them dry. (Chip Clark, NMNH)

“Roxie actually told me once, ‘you would never identify a tree with your nose on the bark. You have to step back and look at the whole picture,’” says Heacker. After taking in the whole picture, step two of the Roxie method was to work with the feather material, which often means washing feathers the same way one washes hair in hot water and detergent and blowing them dry.

Heacker says the next step is to look at the feather’s microstructure, sometimes on a micro slide, to examine the specific barbs within a feather that can indicate the species of bird it comes from.

The scientist using the Roxie method then draws on a mental Rolodex of countless birds and their characteristics to know which of the thousands of birds in the collection might have feathers that match the one on the microslide.

After examining the material, incident, feather microstructure, and referring to the thousands of birds in the museum collection, the fourth and final step is to make a call.

“It's really when you get down to two or three possibilities,” Heacker says of the last step. “It's using your expertise and experience and being honest with yourself—are you willing to make a certain species call?”

Identifying what kind of bird may have collided with a plane provides baseline data that experts use to manage habitats on airfields, informs the military’s Bird Avoidance Model, and helps engineers build more bird-resistant aircrafts

The scientist using the "Roxie method" draws on deep knowledge of countless birds and their characteristics to know which of the thousands of birds in the collection might have feathers that match. (Chip Clark, NMNH)

Heacker says the Roxie method is a classic one that is still taught to students today. But unlike those students, both she and Dove learned the method from the woman who coined it.

“Roxie was tough,” Heacker says of Laybourne’s teaching style. “We spent many weekends and evenings looking at feathers and if she didn't like the way I made a slide, she wouldn't even look at it under the microscope. She would just look at the slide and say ‘go make another one’ because it didn't meet her standards. You just didn’t take it personally.”

Dove said studying birds were Laybourne’s passion, one that she loved teaching her students about even as she held them to high standards.

In an oral history interview before her death in 2003 at age 92, Laybourne described her teaching philosophy as a moral obligation. “I had been given the opportunity to learn, and I feel that when you are given an opportunity to learn, why, then you have a responsibility to share it with someone else,” she said. “So that you can have them build on your knowledge and go farther forward than you could by yourself.”

And the field of forensic ornithology has been carried forward by Dove and Heacker who now incorporate DNA analysis into their work, which didn’t become commonplace until the latter years of Laybourne’s career. “Roxie knew about DNA analysis in the beginning,” Dove says. “She was not in favor of it because it was expensive and it required special laboratories.”

But since it has become more affordable, Dove says that DNA analysis has effectively become step five of the Roxie method because of how frequently it is used. On occasion, though, DNA analysis yields unexpected results, like when it was used in a case from 2008 when a fighter jet flying north of Pensacola, Florida, hit something 1,500 feet in the air.

After damage to the jet’s wing and an emergency landing, an Air Force mechanic sampled a greasy smear near the damage. The smear, which was made of blood, fat and microscopic bits of feather is what forensic ornithologists like to call “snarge.”

“It’s snargy stuff,” Dove says, adding that term was invented in the lab to describe tissue samples that resemble snot and garbage. “When a bird smacks into an airplane, there's some ‘ick’ there. If you can collect that and send it in, we may be able to get species-level identifications using DNA analysis.”

But the results of the DNA analysis concluded that the tissue sample was from an animal that is never airborne: a deer.

“So we sent the sample back again and again, and it came back three different times as white-tailed deer. We were like, what in the heck is going on here?”

Dove and her team eventually referred back to the Roxie method for help, particularly step three—examining feather microstructure. They focused on a single, microscopic piece of feather that happened to stick to the jet.

“So we made a micro slide and brought it to the microscope,” Dove says. “We were poking around and found some deer hair in there, but we also found a tiny, little feather barbule that matched up perfectly with a black vulture.”

The vulture was most likely feeding on a deer carcass before colliding with the jet, and Dove says the crop contents of the vulture had likely overtaken the bird DNA. “So there was no flying deer,” she laughs. For her the case was an example of DNA analysis and the Roxie method working best when used in tandem. That multi-pronged approach has helped solve thousands of birdstrike cases. In 2018 alone, the Feather Identification Lab identified nearly 11,000 birds that were struck by airplanes.

Laybourne’s legacy today goes beyond being a scientific pioneer. Dove says her work changed the role of museums in public life by turning the Smithsonian’s collection of thousands of birds into an applied science tool that has changed aviation safety.

“She realized the practical application that these collections can provide, which was genius.”

About Haleema Shah
Haleema Shah

Haleema Shah is the host and associate producer for the Smithsonian's "Sidedoor" podcast, and a journalist who believes in using audio to enable audiences to delve deep into the ideas that shape our world.

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