Roxie Laybourne, a feather identification expert, in the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History Bird Collection. Photo: Chip Clark

Science

How ‘Feather Lady’ Roxie Laybourne Cracked the Deadly Problem of Planes and Birds

The Smithsonian scientist combined her eye for microscopic detail with a lifelong interest in engines to found the field of forensic ornithology.

Carla Dove is unusual among ornithologists at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. She doesn’t spend most of her time with taxidermy, skeletons, or exhibit labels. Instead, as head of the museum's feather identification lab, Dove and her four-person team spend their days examining slimy, shredded bits of birds. Dove's work helps airports and the military to solve problems when feathered fliers meet metal ones—a role she inherited from her mentor, Roxie Laybourne, the original feather detective.

During 14 years of training, Laybourne taught Dove everything she knew about her career-long obsession: matching feathers to the birds they came from. That might sound obscure, but the techniques Laybourne developed are at the heart of forensic ornithology, which uses bird science to solve mysteries and save lives. Born in a natural history museum, the work ends up on airport tarmacs, where it helps prevent collisions between birds and planes, and in courtrooms, where it identifies murderers.

Forensic ornithology took off in 1960, when more than 60 people were killed after Eastern Airlines Flight 375 crashed in Boston. The aviation industry wanted to avoid similar disasters in the future, so when investigators found feathers in the plane’s engines, they sent them to the Smithsonian for identification. Laybourne, who was 49 at the time and had been at the museum for 16 years, was already developing feather identification techniques for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She was a natural to figure out what had gone wrong.

“She was just so dedicated, so devoted to studying feathers, and she got such joy out of it,” Dove says. “It was like solving a puzzle to her.”

But it wasn’t just her fascination with feathers that set Laybourne up for the job and, ultimately, to invent forensic ornithology: she also loved the planes and engines that tear them to pieces. During college, where she studied math and science, she spent Saturday afternoons working at a small airport. Once, she even skipped class to go see Amelia Earhart early in the aviator's career. But, for a woman born in North Carolina in 1910, it was a challenge to break into the field of aviation, even with a mechanic for a father, and so natural history won out. She started a temporary position at the Smithsonian ornithology department in 1944, then was hired permanently in 1946.

When the Boston samples landed on her desk, she had over a decade of experience and was perfectly positioned to combine her winged passions. But matching a feather sample to a bird was and still is a real challenge: sometimes a sample comprises only a couple of tiny, oil-soaked feather fragments. Even with today’s genetic techniques, about 15 percent of samples are too degraded for DNA analysis after being mangled by an engine or sitting in the hot sun for days or weeks. “So we go back to Roxie’s method,” Dove says.

First, Laybourne cleaned the sample—after trial and error, she found that a simple mix of water and soap flakes worked best—and dried it. Then, she took it to the microscope, where she examined the fluffy plumulaceous barbules at the base which, unlike the smooth barbs that compose most of a feather, vary between orders of birds. Given that, Laybourne could use these barbules to figure out if she was looking at a pigeon or a duck or a songbird. Over her career, she developed a familiarity with the range of barbules, based first on a 1916 book and later on her long hours behind the microscope.

Roxie Laybourne with bird specimens, National Museum of Natural History, Division of Birds. Photo: Smithsonian Institution Archives

Once Laybourne narrowed down the type of bird, she pulled in other clues—where the feather was found, its color, and most importantly comparison with the museum’s hundreds of thousands of specimens—to single out a species. Using the same techniques today, identification can take as little as an hour for feathers in good condition from common species, like Mourning Doves. Other feathers are in such bad shape that it can take as long as week to classify—and the team may never narrow down their ID further than a category like “bird of prey.”

Working carefully, Laybourne eventually identified the birds from the 1960 crash as European Starlings. Although European Starling strikes are relatively rare, airlines have nicknamed the birds “feathered bullets” due to their dense bodies, which cause disproportionately high damage on impact for their size.

The case showed the aviation industry what the ornithology community could offer them, a collaboration that has continued into the present day. If an airport crew knows what kind of bird was a strike victim, they can make runways safer by altering nearby habitat, such as mowing the grass or relocating a pond, to make the area less appealing. Additionally, engineers designing new engines can factor in the weight of birds most often involved in strikes and make sure their creation can withstand the hit.

The 1960 case was the first of many for Laybourne, although she didn’t limit her sleuthing to aviation. Her keen sense for feather identification let her solve criminal wildlife cases with feather-based evidence—and even an FBI murder trial, when she matched feathers from a victim's down jacket to those recovered from the perpetrator's van.

Eventually, she needed to train a replacement and, in 1989, she met her protégé: Dove, a new museum tech enrolled in Laybourne’s famous bird-skinning class. They bonded over their shared rural roots—Laybourne in North Carolina and Dove in Virginia—and, soon, Laybourne chose Dove as her assistant for feather identification. This was an unofficial position at first, with Dove joining her in the lab after she completed her standard workday cataloguing and preparing specimens.

“We would always have our snack at 4:30,” says Dove. “Our snack would be Mountain Dews and peanut butter and cheese crackers, and that would keep us going.” They’d work until 7:00, and then Laybourne would give Dove a ride home in her much-loved Datsun 280ZX sports car.

Later, after the feather identification workload had increased beyond one person’s capacity, Laybourne was able to formally hire Dove as an assistant. Dove could always tell when a day was going well. “When she laughed, it would echo through the bird division,” Dove says. “Roxie had a laugh that was very unique and she laughed a lot.” In 2003, Laybourne retired, although she kept working on feather identifications, and Dove took over the lab.

Now the Smithsonian lab processes about 9,000 bird strike cases each year—30 times more than a busy year under Laybourne—thanks to the ever-growing number of flights. One of the biggest challenges facing the field is that it's more difficult to predict where and when migratory birds, like the flock of Canada Geese that gained infamy in the “miracle on the Hudson,” will cross paths with planes. And aircraft are only going to get quieter and faster, making it harder for birds to recognize their threat.

Dove has found her own successors to train, but she worries about the next phase of the field. “The problem we’re gonna have is there’s really no one coming behind us,” she says. But for now, more than 13 years after her death, Laybourne’s legacy is safe and her work remains the foundation of forensic ornithology.

“She was the giant and I’m standing on her shoulders,” Dove says. “I can see things now that Roxie couldn’t see.”

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