Roxie Laybourne, a feather detective and Smithsonian ornithologist, died on Aug. 7 of cardiac and pulmonary edema. She was 92.
Laybourne’s fascination with birds began in childhood; she used to climb pine trees to view owls. She graduated with a master’s degree in botany from George Washington University, and became an ornithologist.
In the 1940s, she took a job at the Smithsonian Institution and developed a methodology to identify birds by their feathers. Laybourne then used this process to help solve murder mysteries and pinpoint the cause of plane crashes.
As an expert forensic scientist, Laybourne was able to match fragments of feathers to a pillow that was used as a silencer during a homicide. She also helped the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board crack the case of a fatal airplane crash in Boston that killed 62 people in 1960. She determined the jet was downed when a flock of starlings were sucked into one of its engines.
During her four decades at the Smithsonian, Laybourne oversaw the Institution’s collection of 650,000 bird specimens. She retired in 1988 as curator emeritus.