Roxie Laybourne studies specimens from the Birds Collection at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., in 1992. Photo: Chip Clark/Division of Birds, NMNH, Smithsonian Institution

Science

The Remarkable Life of Roxie Laybourne

From deep within the Smithsonian, the world’s first forensic ornithologist cracked cases, busted criminals, and changed the course of aviation—making the skies safer for us all.

John Goglia was sitting in the kitchen of his East Boston home when the walls and windows shook. It was the early evening of October 4, 1960, and Goglia, who was then 16 years old, brushed off the unusual occurrence and returned to dinner. “It wasn’t really an explosion,” he recalls. “It was an impact.” A few minutes later, an acquaintance who had been teaching Goglia how to scuba dive called. The man said there was some kind of an emergency at the waterfront and told Goglia to grab his dive gear and get outside. Goglia hopped to and, much to his surprise, a police cruiser soon arrived. He tossed his oxygen tanks in the trunk and the car sped off toward Boston Harbor, lights flashing and sirens wailing into the autumn sky.  

The scene at the shoreline in nearby Winthrop was “total chaos,” Goglia says. Eastern Airlines Flight 375 had taken off from Logan International Airport at 5:39 p.m. The airplane, a Lockheed Electra L-188, was slated to cut its way down the east coast, making stops in Philadelphia; Charlotte; Greenville, South Carolina; and Atlanta. But it climbed only 200 or so feet into the air when the nose abruptly lifted, the left wing dropped, and it made a sort of arching U-turn straight for the water. Witnesses described the 98,000-pound airplane as being nearly vertical when it smashed into the harbor. The fuselage tore in two and debris hurled in every direction.

Goglia slipped on his wetsuit and joined the frenzied rescue efforts. Scores of local residents had rushed out to the wreck on fishing boats and rowboats and pulled a handful of survivors from the water. Goglia helped retrieve a lifeless body and several body parts. “We’d pull them up to the top, and somebody else would grab them,” he says. “Then we’d go back down and look for more.”

Sixty years later, Flight 375 remains the deadliest aviation accident in New England’s history. Of the 72 people aboard, 62 died, including a dozen marine recruits who were bound for boot camp in Parris Island, South Carolina. One marine’s family had stayed on the observation deck to see him off only to witness the horrific saga unfold.

Authorities lift the tail of a Lockheed Electra L-188 from Boston Harbor, where Eastern Airlines Flight 375 crashed on October 4, 1960. The accident, caused by a flock of starlings, touched off the field of forensic ornithology. Photo: Frank C. Curtin/AP Photo

The crash gripped the nation and put passengers, government agencies, and airlines on edge. “Hundreds Rush to Rescue Survivors of Crash,” read a Boston Globe headline from the next day. “Top Secret Document Aboard,” the Los Angeles Times declared, noting that one of the passengers was carrying sensitive information for the Air Force. Commercial aviation was just becoming widely available and it had been a bumpy ride thus far. President Dwight Eisenhower established the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) only two years earlier following a string of fatal crashes and mid-air collisions, and Flight 375 was poised to be a major stress test for the fledgling regulator.

The biggest red flag was the aircraft itself, Lockheed’s Electra L-188. In the 19 months leading up to Flight 375, the same model of aircraft had been involved in three accidents that claimed a combined 162 lives. In two of them, the wings mysteriously tore off mid-flight. Then, in September 1960, mere weeks before Flight 375, a fourth Electra crashed while attempting to land at New York’s LaGuardia airport. It clipped its landing gear on a dike, flipped upside down, and caught fire. Miraculously everyone survived.

Boston was different. The weather was perfect. The airplane’s wings didn’t fall off. There were no obvious signs of human error. Some witnesses said they saw a puff of smoke come from one of the engines; others said a fireball shot from one. At the end of the runway, investigators found what looked to be hundreds of bird carcasses. Later, when they pulled the engines from the water and disassembled them for inspection, they found feathers snarled in the machinery.   

As part of a nine-month investigation, officials sent the bird remains to the Smithsonian Institution, where they made their way to the desk of Roxie Laybourne. Laybourne had been at the Smithsonian for 15 years and during that time had prepared thousands of bird specimens from around the world for research purposes. Over all that time and all those birds, she had started homing in on the subtle differences in the structure of feathers. It wasn’t hard for her to confirm that the birds hit in Boston were European Starlings.

The FAA’s final accident report, issued in July 1962, concluded that Flight 375 had struck a large flock—perhaps as many as 20,000 starlings—as it lifted off. This, in turn, caused three of the four engines to malfunction in a way that was impossible for the pilot to recover.

For most people, the accident report closed the books on Flight 375. For Laybourne, it marked the start of a remarkable scientific journey that was at times as thrilling as it was bizarre. She’d go on to establish the field of forensic ornithology, and the methods she developed for feather identification would be used to prosecute murderers, bust poachers, and inform conservation efforts. Most importantly, her work would entirely reshape our understanding of the threat birds and airplanes pose to one another—a threat that continues to hang over every airplane in the sky today.

In certain small circles—wildlife forensics groups, aviation safety advocates, ornithologists interested in feathers—Laybourne’s legacy looms large. “As far as I’m concerned, Roxie was a national treasure and deserves to be recognized as such,” says Ken Goddard, director of the National Fish & Wildlife Forensics Laboratory. Richard Dolbeer, science advisor for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says that Laybourne’s work “is the foundation of everything we do” to manage birds at airports, from mowing lawns to controlling nearby insect populations to improving drainage. “She is such a great role model,” he adds. But to most, the name Roxie Laybourne is unknown, her influence largely underappreciated.

This June the Smithsonian Institution Archives made public for the first time a series of oral history interviews conducted with Laybourne in 2001, two years before she died at the age of 92. Those recordings, combined with more than a dozen additional interviews I conducted with Laybourne’s colleagues and admirers, offer a fresh perspective on an often-overlooked pioneer whose indomitable work ethic and ingenuity has benefitted us all. They also show a woman who never met a boundary she didn’t push, be it race relations during the Civil Rights era or the redline of her Datsun 280zx. “She drove her little sports car like a bat out of hell,” Smithsonian historian Pam Henson says. “She was someone who was always challenging herself.”

To grasp the significance of Laybourne’s work—and the technical obstacles she was up against—it helps to briefly consider what we now know about bird strikes. In short, they happen all the time and involve all types of birds. In 2019 the FAA logged 17,270 bird strikes (or 47 a day) and that’s likely a conservative count because reporting bird strikes is voluntary. The range of birds that have been hit over the years reads like a field guide to North America: Brown Pelicans, Magnificent Frigatebirds, Great Blue Herons, Tricolored Herons, Little Blue Herons, Green Herons, Turkey Vultures, Bald Eagles, American Kestrels, Laughing Gulls, Forster’s Terns, Anna’s Hummingbirds, Red-breasted Sapsuckers, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Grasshopper Sparrows, Red-winged Blackbirds, and so on. 

You can rest easy knowing that it is exceedingly rare for a bird strike to have catastrophic consequences. Flight 375 remains the deadliest crash caused by birds, but there have been other incidents. Astronaut Theodore Freeman died in 1964 when a Canada Goose crashed through the cockpit of a fighter jet he was piloting. In 1995 a U.S. Air Force aircraft with 24 people aboard crashed in Alaska after hitting a flock of Canada Geese, killing everyone. There have also been notable close calls in recent years, including the “Miracle on the Hudson” when Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landed an Airbus A320 in the Hudson River after the plane hit migratory geese. A similar event occurred last year in Russia, when a pilot nailed some gulls near Moscow and had to make an emergency landing in a cornfield.  

In any case, when a small bird collides with a goliath aircraft, it can get pretty disgusting. All that’s typically left of the bird is a putrid mix of blood, guts, feathers, muscle, and tissue that aviation insiders refer to as “snarge”—a mash-up of snot and garbage. Sometimes a pilot will see the strike happen and alert the ground crew to look out for the evidence; other times a mechanic will discover bits of feather in an engine or a splat of snarge on the aircraft’s nose during routine maintenance and collect a sample for inspection.

Up until Flight 375, nobody gave a hoot about snarge. Airplanes had been hitting birds for as long as man has been flying: Wilbur Wright recorded the first bird strike in 1905. And few people considered some three-ounce passerines hazardous to the big-body aircraft that were taking over the skies.

In the wake of Boston, it became painfully clear that birds can be a threat that should be tracked and studied. It was critical to determine what types of birds were getting hit, but there was no blueprint for how to turn a smidgen of snarge into an accurate identification. It wasn’t even clear if it could really be done. The work was going to be messy, tedious, and oh-so complicated. If anyone had the ornithological chops and intellectual grit to work through the puzzles of snarge, it was Laybourne.

Laybourne was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in 1910 and developed an early appreciation for the transformative power of the automobile and airplane. Her father was a mechanic, and her grandfather ran a blacksmith shop that had pivoted to accommodate the sudden rise of the automobile. “In one part of it he was shoeing horses, and in the other part, working on cars,” she said. “We grew up with engines.”

She was equally intrigued by the natural world, especially plants and birds. She’d pore over issues of Bird-Lore, the precursor to Audubon magazine, and bug her grandmother for help identifying the species flying around the farm. It’s safe to say that Laybourne enjoyed a level of independence as a child that would make many parents sick with anxiety. She’d wander off in the woods for hours on end or pile some of her 13 younger siblings (including three sets of twins) in a wagon and head out on miles-long treks. “Even as children, we more or less made our own decisions,” Laybourne said of her parents’ style. “They guided us, but they didn't force us into any set rules . . . We were allowed to think the way we wanted to think.”

This independent streak carried over to Meredith College, where Laybourne trapped rabbits on campus, mowed the dormitory lawn for exercise, skipped class to see Amelia Earhart land at a nearby airstrip, and became the first woman to wear blue jeans on campus. While she wasn’t the type to march into the dean’s office to air her grievances, she had her axes to grind and found her own ways to rebel. She once stole a pack of her father’s Old Gold cigarettes and smoked a single one each night. “I'd sit there in the window and smoke my cigarette just to spite the dean,” she said. “I finished that pack, and that was the last pack I ever smoked.”

Life at Meredith was breezy; the world outside of campus was anything but. Laybourne graduated in 1932 in the middle of the Great Depression, when nearly a quarter of the country was unemployed. Given the circumstances, she took an unpaid position at a museum in North Carolina and started learning the craft of taxidermy. She eventually worked her way up to a salary of $100 a month for nine months of the year, which she was allowed to supplement with custom taxidermy work on the side. It wasn’t much, but it was “enough to keep body and soul together,” Laybourne said. It soon became evident that she had a knack for mounting birds. One especially pleased customer wrote Laybourne’s boss a letter praising her work and insisting that a turkey she had mounted looked so real that he swore it bent down and snatched an acorn off the ground.

Taxidermy was a fine starting point, though the path forward was unclear and her interests were diverse. In her late 20s she married, had a child, and got a divorce. She started a master’s degree at North Carolina State University, where she focused on marine life, but hit pause when a unique opportunity presented itself in Washington, D.C. In 1944 she accepted a job as a museum aide in the Smithsonian’s Division of Birds.

Laybourne's task, initially a one-year gig, was to prepare bird skins—research specimens collected in the field and preserved in museums and laboratories. It’s a delicate procedure in which everything inside the bird other than the skull, wing bones, and leg bones are removed while the plumage is kept intact and as natural looking as possible. It’s more plastic surgery than taxidermy and many of the specimens Laybourne was expected to spruce up had been ravaged by time. She once opened a Pie-billed Grebe and found it stuffed with newspaper from 1842.

Science was one big boys club at the time. “The Smithsonian, I hate to say it, was like everything else in the ’40 and ‘50s—a very white male–oriented culture,” says Marcy Heacker, who trained under Laybourne for many years and is a program specialist at what eventually became the Smithsonian’s Feather Identification Lab. Whatever frustrations Laybourne felt as a woman in science were channeled into her work. It wasn’t enough to do a better job than everyone else; Laybourne wanted to do work that other people simply couldn’t do. “She always said your work would prove yourself,” Heacker says. “And she kept her head down and kept plodding.”

Much like in college, Laybourne found her own ways to chip away at the status quo. In 1964 she began mentoring several Black high school students in the preparation of bird skins as part of a program for inner-city youth sponsored by the Urban League. “It didn’t matter what race I was, she treated me as an equal,” says Lorenzo Baskerville, who was 14 and living in D.C. when he started working with Laybourne. “She saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.”

Under Laybourne, Baskerville estimates that he skinned and prepared 1,000 Red-winged Blackbirds. But the mentorship extended far beyond birds. Laybourne took Baskerville to the theatre and symphony and out to the country so he could experience wilderness, small acts that made a big impression in those racially turbulent times. She also encouraged him to focus on his academics, gave him a job with a government salary when he was still a teenager after the summer program had ended, and drilled into him the importance of properly managing his money—advice that stuck with Baskerville as went on to become a certified financial advisor. “She strongly influenced my life,” he says, noting that they stayed friends for decades.

Having spent thousands of hours preparing thousands upon thousands of specimens, Laybourne had accumulated a library’s worth of knowledge about birds. At some point, she began observing the subtle structural differences in feathers among closely related birds. It was an esoteric interest that could have served as the backbone of a doctoral thesis. Then Flight 375 plunged into Boston Harbor.

Toward the end of the accident report on Flight 375 is a sentence that changed the trajectory of Laybourne’s career. To get a handle on the bird threat, the FAA said it was launching a “comprehensive program of research into turbine engine bird ingestion.” As part of that program, the FAA gave Laybourne a microscope and vague marching orders to figure out how to identify birds that were being hit by airplanes. It also started distributing bird strike report forms to airlines and airports, which instructed mechanics to collect “a feather or more” of whatever bird remains they could and mail them to room 414 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum.

Packages started arriving, and Laybourne began mapping out a process to handle the remains, wash whatever feathers were available, prepare slides, and, finally, study and identify them. Everything in those early days was hard, even cleaning the feathers. Jet engines often gunked up the diaphanous material. Using too much soap or too much water or too much force could ruin the sample, and not enough of any of those things would render the sample useless. “I had made up bird skins. I also knew how to wash and dry whole birds. But getting single feathers that had gone through aircraft—now that was a whole new ballgame,” Laybourne said.

As any birder knows, accurately identifying a species—discerning a Red-tailed Hawk from a Rough-legged Hawk, for instance—can be tough. Doing so from a single feather that’s been sucked through a high-powered engine seemed preposterous. Some birds could look a dozen different ways depending on how the plane hit it and what feathers were recovered. A Horned Lark, for example, could leave behind a yellow, black, brown, or white feather. Laybourne’s lodestar in those early days was a scientific study from 1916 titled “A Study of the Structure of Feathers, with Reference to their Taxonomic Significance.” Trial and error eventually led her to focus her attention on the plumaceous barbules, tiny microstructures toward the base of feathers that can help distinguish their owner.

Laybourne initially didn’t have a reference microscope, a tool that would have allowed her to simultaneously examine a feather fragment recovered from an airplane and reference feathers. So instead she would hand-sketch her microscopic observations on a 3x5-inch card and then head into the vast reference section in search of something that might look the same. The days were long, the work was analog, and it wore on Laybourne. “There was just so much stuff,” she said. “I had to build up a method, the vocabulary, [figure out] what structures to look for, what structures were diagnostic.”

The work was as rewarding as it was challenging. Each pile of snarge and each fragment of feather led to new breakthroughs, new insights. Laybourne learned to leverage important context clues—the time of year, the airplane’s route, grasses and other plants near the airport—to narrow the possibilities. Within a few years, she had worked out the major kinks in the system and was up and running, delivering accurate identifications to companies like Pratt & Whitney and General Electric, which were trying to figure out how to bird-proof their engines.

Laybourne’s work also shed new light on the amazing flying power of certain birds. In 1963, she determined that an airplane flying over Nevada struck a Mallard at 21,000 feet—an altitude that nobody knew Mallards could achieve. A few years later, she identified feathers from a Rüppell's Griffon Vulture that was struck by an airplane flying over the Ivory Coast at 37,000 feet. It remains the highest-known strike.

Laybourne had found her groove, and then tragedy hit home. In October 1966, her second husband, E.G. Laybourne, a Smithsonian taxidermist with whom she had a second child, died from cancer. The loss weighed heavily on the then 57-year-old Laybourne. “When you lose somebody close to you, it’s like half of you is gone,” she said.

Laybourne’s career at the Smithsonian began in the taxidermy shop, where she remade study skins of birds that had been collected in the field long before. Photo: Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives

She mourned quietly for months. The following spring, Laybourne and some friends went birding one morning. They had stayed out longer than expected, and on the drive back the women began fretting that they would be late for lunch with their husbands. “Well, I don't have to worry about my husband. He’s up in heaven,” Laybourne blurted out, surprising even herself by the admission. It was the first positive moment to have come since her husband’s death, she said, and her healing process began that day.

“I began to realize, ‘Hey, I am free.’ I don't have to worry like these women do,” she said. Her partner gone and her children grown, she focused all of her energy on her job.

Laybourne buried her head in her microscope and transformed herself into the world’s foremost feather expert. Her reputation for making accurate identifications from a literal shred of evidence kept growing—and it wasn’t just airlines and aerospace engineers who wanted to harness her skills.

An airplane wreck may have pushed Laybourne into the world of feather identifications, but it was her experiences with FWS and the FBI that elevated her into a true forensic scientist. She first started assisting with criminal investigations, mainly poaching and environmental crimes, in the early ’70s and over the years testified in federal courtrooms from coast to coast.

She conducted the majority of her law-enforcement work in the confines of her laboratory. But one foggy morning in 1988 a parade of special agents and local police escorted Laybourne and a mentee named Beth Ann Sabo to a sprawling estate in Virginia owned by billionaire John Kluge. “It was like being in the president’s motorcade,” Sabo recalls.

Once on the property, they were led to a large, deep hole that was covered with a tarp. “They made the youngest agent go down into the pit and throw the birds up,” Sabo says. “It was awful.” Laybourne and Sabo set up shop on a tailgate of a truck and spent the entire day identifying bird remains, photographing evidence, and writing up reports to be used in court. All told they identified at least 91 Red-tailed Hawks and a smattering of owls that had been shot to death.

The identifications were a key piece of evidence for prosecutors. A few months after the raid, three of Kluge's employees were found guilty of conspiring to kill protected birds. The defendants reportedly explained to the judge and jury without a trace of irony that shooting the hawks was the only way they could protect the pheasants and ducks they kept on the property for hunting.

Other criminal cases Laybourne worked on sound like they were pulled from the pages of a pulp magazine. In one instance, she showed that feather fragments found on a bullet came from a pillow that a woman placed over her husband’s head in hopes of muffling the blast before shooting him to death. “I didn’t like doing crimes of violence,” she said.

In 1990, FWS opened the National Wildlife Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon, and put Sabo in charge of its ornithology program. It was a twofer for the then 80-year-old Laybourne: It freed her of the criminal work, and she could rest easy knowing that the program was in the hands of a skilled scientist whom she groomed for this exact moment.   

At an age when most people are well into retirement if not dead, Laybourne was still peering into her microscope. As long as there were airplanes in the sky, there were bird remains coming into the Smithsonian, and Laybourne knew she was arguably the only person on Earth who could make consistently accurate identifications. She also knew that was deeply problematic in terms of a succession plan. So she started devoting more time and energy to training two mentees, Carla Dove and Marcy Heacker. She taught them the skills that she had honed over a 30-year-long stretch and encouraged them to push the field forward and embrace new tools.

Today approximately 80 to 85 percent of bird-strike identifications are done via DNA sequencing. But there are plenty of cases where the condition of the sample is not good enough. “Fifteen to 20 percent of the time we can’t get a DNA sequence,” says Dove, who is now program director at the Smithsonian’s Feather Identification Lab. Other times, the genetic tests may deliver an unusual or surprising finding that needs to be double-checked. In those cases, she falls back on the methods that Laybourne pioneered. “I’m now training people on Roxie’s methods,” Dove says. “Roxie’s legacy is living on in this work, and it will continue to.”  

It can be hard to appreciate the many ways in which Laybourne’s research has transformed aviation. The data she produced informed engine redesigns, helped regulators set new standards for how strong cockpit windshields need to be, and guided biologists who are tasked with keeping birds away from airports. These aren’t the things that travelers typically notice when they’re preparing for takeoff, but they’ve undoubtedly made the skies safer for us all.

Her legacy has also touched the lives of countless people, some in profound ways. This includes, John Goglia, the young Bostonian who pulled on his scuba gear and dove into the wreckage of Flight 375. In the course of a few hours on that October night in 1960, he saw things that no teenager—no person, really—could have prepared for.

Carla Dove, left, with Laybourne at the Smithsonian, where Dove now runs the Feather Identification Lab using the methods that Laybourne pioneered. Photo: Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives

As a young man, Goglia became an airplane mechanic, where he regularly encountered snarge that was sent off to Laybourne. He climbed the ranks of the aviation industry and became a vocal safety advocate who understood, perhaps better than anyone other than Laybourne, the risk that bird strikes pose. In 1995, Goglia became the first airplane mechanic to receive a presidential appointment to the National Transportation Safety Board. He sat through more meetings than he cares to remember in which airline execs and airport execs bickered over who was responsible for wildlife-mitigation costs. Occasionally, he’d snap. “I’d hush the room sometimes talking about, you know, picking up the bodies and the pieces of the bodies,” he says. “I’d give them a little dose of reality.”

One day in the mid-‘90s, Goglia was invited to visit Laybourne at the museum. They knew of one another’s work, but they had never met. Goglia jokes that he was so excited by the invitation he made the quarter-mile walk from his office in three steps.

He and Laybourne spent the whole afternoon together. They talked about Flight 375, how bad it was, and how it changed everything. She showed him some of the museum’s research specimens and explained her techniques. And, Goglia recalls, she peppered him with questions about how mechanics report bird strikes. He was struck that even at Laybourne’s advanced age, she was still striving to improve her work. “She could joke,” Goglia says, “but she was all business when you were talking about birds.”

Laybourne died in August 2003. She continued working on identifications up until the last few years of her life. Dove and Heacker would regularly drive specimens out to her home in the lush wilderness of Manassas, Virginia, where they would sit on her back porch, examining the remains under a simple light microscope. Even as her eyes faded and her body diminished, she’d get excited at the prospect of making another identification, completing another puzzle, turning snarge into scientific data.