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Roxie C. Laybourne, 92; Pioneer in Forensic Ornithology Aided Aviation

August 18, 2003|From Staff and Wire Reports

WASHINGTON — Roxie C. Laybourne, who pioneered the science of forensic ornithology to help protect airplanes from collisions with birds, has died. She was 92.

Laybourne died Aug. 7 in suburban Washington, D.C., following a long illness. Semiretired since cataracts dimmed her eyesight a few years ago, she recently did her work from her 26-acre Virginia farm.

Laybourne worked for more than 50 years at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, where she developed the specialty of identifying dead birds from their feathers to learn what types of birds struck planes.

Based on her information, aircraft engine manufacturers strengthened their fan blades and the military developed stronger fighter canopies. Airport managers also created plans for shooing flocks of birds off runways, including mowing grass, firing cannons and broadcasting bird distress calls.

The feather detective -- once dubbed the Miss Marple of Eiderdown by the New York Times -- became involved in identifying birds from their remains in 1960.

A Lockheed Electra taking off from Boston had flown into a flock of starlings and crashed, killing 62 of the 72 people aboard -- the deadliest bird-related air crash in history. Laybourne, on assignment to the Federal Aviation Administration, was able to identify the type of birds involved in the crash from charred fragments that clogged the plane's engines.

She went on to develop new methods for identifying birds from fragmentary remains and bits of feathers, using an electron microscope to compare the bits of fluffy evidence sent to her from around the world with the Smithsonian's more than 650,000 bird specimens.

"Feathers," she once stressed to an interviewer: "We specialize in bird strikes. The main thing is to learn the feathers."

Laybourne learned odd factoids -- such as the highest bird strike on record was at 37,000 feet, over the coast of Africa when a Ruppell's Griffin vulture flew into the engine of a 747; the plane flew on.

She was able to solve about 1,000 cases a year -- helpful detective work considering that the FAA estimates birds collide with 8,000 planes annually.

Thanks largely to the work Laybourne began, the agency has calculated that 30% of the accidents involve seagulls; 13% waterfowl; 12% pigeons and doves; 12% blackbirds and starlings; and 10% birds of prey, including hawks and owls; with the remainder caused by various other species.

Knowing which birds cause the most accidents helps in runway management as well as aircraft design.

Laybourne handled feather evidence for the FAA, National Transportation Safety Board, Pratt and Whitney, General Electric, Rolls Royce and the FBI, among others. And she trained experts for various agencies to emulate her efforts. Her work was recognized in 1966 with a lifetime achievement award -- an elegant eagle statue -- from the Air Force Bird Strike Committee.

Laybourne's work was not completely limited to flight paths. In 1986, she helped the FBI nab a husband who had murdered his wife in Alaska and dumped her body in the ocean. Although the body was never recovered, the victim's down coat washed ashore. Laybourne was able to match the coat feathers -- from a Chinese duck -- to those found in the back of the husband's van, contributing to the conviction.

In another murder case, she helped criminal investigators convict a wife who had shot her sleeping husband with a pistol silenced by wrapping it in a feather pillow. Laybourne found microscopic traces of down from the bullet lodged in the victim's skull that matched feathers from the bullet-punctured pillow.

"The feather," she told Associated Press, "puts you at the scene of the crime."

Born in Fayetteville, N.C., Laybourne grew up in rural Farmville, spending hours outdoors fascinated by "anything that creeped and crawled." She graduated from Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., and earned a master's degree at George Washington University. She worked for the North Carolina State Museum of Natural History in Raleigh and the National Fisheries Laboratory in Beaufort, N.C., before joining the Smithsonian in 1944.

As a Smithsonian research associate, Laybourne roamed the country testifying as an expert witness for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in prosecutions of poachers, smugglers of endangered birds, and sellers of contraband Indian headdresses containing eagle feathers.

The diminutive scientist, known for her white lab coat and tennis shoes, married twice and is survived by one son from each marriage, as well as by several siblings and grandchildren.

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