Thursday, October 28, 2010

Roxie Laybourne

The highlight of my high school career was being taken under wing by Roxie Laybourne. Every Thursday night, Roxie held court in the bowels of the Smithsonian as she held bird-skinning sessions. I prepared many bird specimens, including an embryonic Whooping Crane, a casualty of the Federal crane recovery program.

Later, after a long day visiting the capitol and the Washington Monument, I introduced Erika to Roxie at a skinning session. Erika declined Roxie’s invitation to skin a bird. Roxie took me aside and said, “This isn’t the girl for you.” But years later apologized and said she had been mistaken; perhaps after visiting us in Ecuador and seeing Erika sew the head back on a poor shot up Pygmy Tyrannulet—a flycatcher no bigger than a thumb. The photo above shows Roxie and Erika, when Roxie visited us in the Ecuadorian jungle.

During one of my college jobs, I did a stint with Roxie at the National Museum. I banded my first birds that semester in the woods near Washington. My first bird was an Ovenbird, banded near a drug deal being consummated nearby. Banding at Roxie’s was much preferable! One of my banded birds, a Red-bellied Woodpecker, became the oldest on record, at 13 years.

When they were young, my sons realized that Roxie was famous when she was interviewed by Big Bird on Sesame Street. Late in her career, Roxie realized that birds could be identified by microscopic examination of single feathers.  She became a forensic specialist for the FBI and also studied bird strikes by aircraft. Most importantly, she inspired a host of young people who later became ornithologists.


  1. I was very pleased to meet Roxie at the Smithsonian in 1990. She and Bob Storer (whom I met a few weeks later) were witnesses on opposing sides of a court case involving a celebrated and tragic collision between a commercial jet and a Common Loon.

  2. Flying with Roxie could be unnerving as she would say, "Look, Ring-billed Gulls! I was right about that aircraft strike!" She became so proficient at air strikes that she was able to id a Brown Creeper that was hit by a 727.

  3. I was privileged to see the Smithsonians huge collection of skins in 1968, when I was a young Coast Guardsman tasked with the job of returning a shotgun to the museum. The guards, upon finding out that the object in the elongated case was a weapon, reacted with remarkable coolness and summoned a bird specialist instead of the SWAT team. Come to think of it, this was well before the days of SWAT teams and terrorist hysteria, depite events like Kent State and Altamont.

  4. I found this post while searching for a birthday present for Roxie Laybourne's nephew, a friend of mine. I also, coincidentally, happen to have worked for Dr. J. Douglas Ripley, who was the Natural Resources Program Manager for the Air Force and later in an analogous position with the Air National Guard. He told me all about Roxie and held her in the highest esteem. Anyway, I really enjoyed your post. I'm looking for something Roxie-related that might make a significant birthday present for my friend (Dr. Frank Morgan, physicist and amateur geologist/naturalist). If you have any ideas, please contact me. I'm looking for a copy of Roxie's oral history reports from the Smithsonian too. Cheers, jb

    1. I think Roxie would appreciate if a gift were made to her name in her scholarship at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C.

  5. Hello, Dan. My name is Gabrielle Graham and I am currently an intern with the Smithsonian Archives Institutional History Division. I have been working on transcriptions of oral history interviews conducted with Roxie in 2001, and am now creating a website on her life and work. I wanted to let you know that you are mentioned in a section under Mentoring/Students and that we will be including a hyperlink to your blog. I'm not sure when the exhibit will go live, but it will eventually be housed on If you have any questions, you can contact me Thank you!