Article includes a 1991 color photograph of Roxie Collie Laybourne.
This article was written as a tribute to the life and work of Roxie Collie Laybourne, a world-renowned feather identification expert and pioneer in the field of forensic ornithology who worked at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History for 40 years. The authors are individuals who knew Laybourne well: two of only three graduate students who had studied feather structure with her, and an aviation reporter for a Florida newspaper who was the first to gain Laybourne's trust on personal matters.
Known as the "Feather Lady," Laybourne revolutionized aviation safety by creating a technique of identifying birds involved in aircraft bird strikes. That work led to the development of the first laboratory in the world dedicated solely to feather identification. The methods she developed are now routinely applied to studies of prey remains, evidence from criminal cases, and anthropological artifacts.
Laybourne was born in North Carolina in 1910. The eldest of 15 children, she graduated from Meredith College in Raleigh in 1932 and worked in North Carolina as a museum taxidermist and collector, and at a fisheries laboratory. With Smithsonian Secretary Alexander Wetmore's encouragement, Laybourne accepted a short-term appointment in 1944 in the Bird Division at the National Museum of Natural History, working with taxidermist Watson Perrygo and curator Herbert Friedmann.
From 1946 until 1988, Laybourne continued her work at the Smithsonian with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service Bird and Mammal Laboratory (which became the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, U. S. Geological Service); she began her first feather identification services under the direction of John Aldrich, and received a Master's degree from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., in 1950. Laybourne's "short-term" appointment was only the beginning of a long career with the Smithsonian Institution, as even though she retired in 1988, Laybourne continued her feather identification work as a Research Associate until her death in 2003.
Laybourne is remembered by the authors as an ingenious, dedicated researcher and tireless worker. She had an adventurous and unique character; known for her positive and encouraging attitude, however, she also placed heavy demands on her graduate students, as she expected complete dedication to work and studies.
Laybourne received many awards during her long career and was an active member of the American Ornithologists' Union; she only stopped traveling to meetings after a 1995 fall during a Bird Strike Committee Meeting in Texas. She had two sons, one from her first marriage and another from her second marriage to Edgar G. Laybourne, a Smithsonian taxidermist.