It's a rare bird who can create a whole new science, solve murders and make airplanes safer. But Roxie Laybourne did, and now, at age 88, she's teaching another generation about feathers - and about not giving up.
By BILL ADAIR, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 21, 1999
MANASSAS, Va. -- The feather fragments arrive in an Airborne Express envelope left against the garage door. Inside the package is all that's left of a bird that met an unhappy end somewhere over Israel, in the fan blades of a TWA jet.
Pratt & Whitney, the engine manufacturer, has had the feathers delivered halfway around the world, to this farm outside the nation's capital, to an 88-year-old woman who just can't seem to give up her white lab coat.
For Roxie Laybourne, the world's premier expert on feathers, this should be a straightforward case. All she has to do is examine the downy specks under her microscope and look for the telltale signs that identify the bird.
But she doesn't trust her eyes. Recovering from cataract surgery a few weeks earlier,she works from her home instead of her office at the Smithsonian Institution and relies on an assistant to look at the feathers. Lately, Roxie has been spending a lot of time in her La-Z-Boy, with her moccasins up.
She instructs her assistant, Marcy Heacker-Skeans, to study the feather specks under the microscope, the one the Federal Aviation Administration issued her 40 years ago, kept now in her kitchen, on top of her wine rack.
As Marcy examines the downy specks at 50 and 100 magnification, Roxie's curiosity simmers.
"What's it look like, Marcy? Whatta you think it is?"
"It's not a duck. It's not a passerine..."
Roxie comes to full boil. Never mind her eye problems, or her aching neck, she must have a look. She shuffles across the kitchen, adjusts the microscope with a steady hand and studies the feathers.
"Short barbules. Most likely a gull."
Forty years after she created the science of feather identification, Roxie won't stop working. She slowed when she broke her hip, and now cataracts have forced her into temporary retirement. She's hated every minute of it.
"All summer I've been doing nothing! You can get tired relaxing!"
So Roxie hasn't relaxed. She's studied the poem.
That darn poem!
It's an unfinished college assignment from 70 years ago: Memorize all 32 stanzas of Rabbi Ben Ezra, by Robert Browning.
The poem got her through her darkest days, after she broke her hip. Lying in the hospital bed, thinking about dying, Roxie took inspiration from the one stanza she remembered:
Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be...
Now, four years after her injury, she still hasn't mastered all 192 lines of the poem. But she has vowed to conquer it, if it's the last thing she does. She has 36 lines to go.
The convoy of dark blue Crown Victorias raced through the rolling hills of Virginia, bound for the estate of entertainment industry mogul John W. Kluge. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was acting on a tip that estate employees had killed hundreds of federally-protected hawks and owls and buried the carcasses on the 5,000-acre estate. The tipster said the predatory birds were killed to keep pheasants alive, so Kluge and friends could hunt them.
The agents served their search warrant. Minutes later, one of the Crown Vics pulled up to the mucky hole that would come to be known as The Death Pit. Roxie Laybourne and her assistant, Beth Ann Sabo, stepped out, Roxie fitted as usual in her white lab coat and Keds.
Agent Roger Gephart, wearing thick gloves and hip waders, got down in the pit, digging out carcasses and dumping them on the tailgate of a truck where Roxie and Sabo waited.
It was the most vile crime scene Gephart ever worked, reeking of death and garbage and Lord-knows-what-else.
The smell didn't faze Roxie. The rotting birds weren't nearly as bad as the stench she occasionally got at work, when Smithsonian anthropologists were dissecting humans. ("As a rule, mammals smell worse than birds," she says.)
Gephart pulled birds from the pit. Some oozed green slime, others had decayed to only a skeleton. Roxie identified them on the spot.
"Turkey vulture -- partial skull," she scribbled on one report. "Red-tailed hawk immature -- tail feathers."
The case went to trial in May 1988. Roxie, then 77, provided authoritative testimony about the dead birds and amused the jury when she kept referring to the Fish and Wildlife agents as "my boys." Defense attorneys made a half-hearted attempt to cross-examine her and gave up. The three Kluge employees were convicted.
For that case and countless others, Roxie is a legend. She once helped the FBI catch a killer even though the victim's body had been dumped off a cliff into the ocean and couldn't be found. Roxie helped match goose feathers from the suspect's van with the victim's down coat. In another case, a man charged with illegally shooting a turkey was seen eating most of the evidence, but Roxie and an FBI agent used bones from his trash to prove it was a protected bird.
Roxie has been most important in aviation, where engineers refer to "the bird threat" the way the Pentagon talks about the terrorist threat. It's an odd but crucial task in the jet age -- to identify the species so engine-makers will know how well their products take a direct hit from a Laughing Gull, a Cuban Whistling Duck or their biggest fear, a Canada Goose.
In 1960, a Lockheed Electra taking off from Boston collided with a flock of starlings and crashed, killing 62 people. Suddenly the government cared a lot about birds. Roxie, then 49 and with 16 years at the Smithsonian, was appointed to help.
Under her FAA microscope, she discovered unique patterns in the stringy fragments of feathers called downy barbules. Some barbules have little triangles, others have rings. She found similarities between birds from the same family, even those that lived thousands of miles apart.
Sabo, Roxie's assistant at The Death Pit, describes identifying feathers as "puzzle-solving at its most elegant."
Pigeons and doves are easiest to identify; the nodes of their barbules look like crocuses. The hardest are various songbirds, because the round nodes on their barbules look alike.
With feather fragments, some no bigger than bread crumbs, Roxie has solved thousands of bird strike cases. In one, she used a tiny fragment of down from a pilot's shoulder patch to identify the herring gull that broke through the canopy of a Harrier military jet.
Her reports have made flying safer -- at least for humans. Engine manufacturers have strengthened their fan blades and the Air Force has improved canopies on fighter planes.
Roxie is also renowned as co-inventor of the "cloacascope," an instrument that determines the sex of a whooping crane without having to do an autopsy. That's crucial if you're trying to breed the endangered birds. It's also been used on penguins.
She never wrote a book about the science she created -- how could she, she says, if she still hasn't finished learning? -- but she made a point of sharing her knowledge with young scientists.
Call it the University of Roxie. For 40 years, she has trained people to continue her legacy. She taught Sabo to handle the work for fish and wildlife agencies. She trained Doug Deedrick, who runs the FBI's trace evidence lab. She groomed the appropriately named Carla Dove to take over the aviation work and the responsibilities at the Smithsonian.
"Roxie didn't want the first answer that came out of your head," Deedrick says. "She wanted the reasons for the answer and she wanted it to be right."
Sabo was in her 20s and single when she studied under Roxie. When friends would call Sabo with after-hours plans, her taskmaster would shake her head and point to feathers that needed study.
"You don't need to go out to dinner," Roxie would say. "We've got work to do."
Sabo can laugh about it now.
Other girls growing up in the 1920s wanted to be nurses or teachers. Roxie wanted to be a turkey vulture. She would lie in the woods, watch them soar above the trees and dream about riding the thermals.
She loved to be out from dawn til dusk, digging holes to see the earthworms wriggle and to feel the dirt in her hands. She got lots of freedom from her parents by keeping quiet. When she wanted to go exploring in the woods, she didn't ask permission. She just went.
"It's best to keep your mouth shut and just do things. If you don't make a fuss about things, nobody is going to pay much attention to you."
She grew up in eastern North Carolina, in a tobacco town called Farmville, and still speaks with a wonderfully rich Carolina accent. There becomes they-yuh. Feather becomes fea-thuh. The occasional "damn" is followed quickly with, "Excuse me for cussin.' "
She was the oldest of 11 or 12 brothers and sisters. There were three sets of twins, and one of the twins died young. Her mother was a housewife, her father an auto mechanic. Roxie would spend hours watching him work on engines, marveling at the tools he used.
Her mother tried to teach her to sew, but Roxie had no interest. She loved animals, not dresses, played a lot of baseball and worked on a lot of engines. Keeping with her strategy of not asking, she didn't make a fuss about it when she got to Meredith College, an all-woman school in Raleigh. She just did it.
Saturday afternoons, she would work at the little airport in town. When she tried to take a class on airplane engines, the Meredith administrators said it would interfere with her schoolwork. So she signed up for a correspondence course without telling anybody.
When her college friends went on their weekly flirting trips to North Carolina State, Roxie stayed behind. "I wasn't interested in boys. I was still growing up. I was interested in shooting marbles, flying kites and playing baseball."
It was at Meredith that her Oral English professor, Miss Brown, assigned the class to memorize the Robert Browning poem.
Another professor called it a dreadful piece of work, with lines like:
Irks care the crop-full bird?
Frets doubt the maw-crammed beast?
The whole poem was like that, thick as molasses, filled with exclamation points and words like thou and doth. It was easier to figure out a V-8 engine than decipher what Browning was trying to say.
Miss Brown never required the class to complete the assignment, which suited Roxie fine. She read it again and again but didn't have the first clue what it was about.
Growing up in a rough neighborhood in Washington, D.C., Lorenzo Baskerville didn't see many white faces. So it was more than a bit strange for the 14-year-old to find himself in a cramped, windowless room at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, listening to a white woman with an odd accent explain how to skin a dead bird.
Lorenzo and three other teenagers were at the Smithsonian for a summer jobs program. The idea was to give them a paycheck and a chance to work at one of the world's greatest museums.
The boys wondered what planet Roxie was from. She wasn't racist, she treated them with respect.
Roxie praised Lorenzo for his technique sewing the birds, a process that preserved them for the giant Smithsonian collection. She taught him their scientific names and quizzed him:
Red-wing blackbird? Agelaius phoeniceus, he would answer. Starling? Sturnus vulgaris.
When the program ended, Roxie got Lorenzo a part-time job as her assistant and encouraged him to finish high school. He was among the Smithsonian's youngest employees, and definitely the youngest student at the University of Roxie.
This was the Roxie paradox: She created a science that identified birds by the color and shape of their feathers, but when it came to people, appearance didn't matter.
She took Lorenzo to the theater and ignored the odd stares from society women, and she brought him to her farm and taught him how to shovel manure.
When he passed up a chance to attend Cornell University, telling Roxie that he just wasn't ready, she understood. When he went to fight in Vietnam, she kept in touch with his family. When he married and brought his children out to the farm, Roxie would lead them through the woods, pointing out the birds and animals.
Lorenzo is 50 now, a retired transit authority worker studying for a new career in computers. He comes out to the farm about once a month to reminisce and talk about birds, and he can still recite the species names Roxie drilled into him 36 summers ago. He's especially fond of Agelaius phoeniceus, because Roxie made him sew so many of them.
He says Roxie made him feel special. "I was struggling in high school. She made me focus. She saw something in me I didn't see in myself."
These days, Roxie spends a lot of time in her electric La-Z-Boy. Because of back and neck problems, she sits down gingerly, letting the motor slowly elevate her feet.
She'd much rather be up working, solving another mystery for Pratt & Whitney, but she recognizes, grudgingly, that her body is slowing down. "The engine is still good," she says, "but the chassis is bad."
Her chassis has fused vertebrae that make it difficult for her to turn her head. Still, in aviator-style glasses and her No Fear baseball cap, she looks younger than her 88 years.
Her living room is a gallery to her career: On her bookshelf is the Patricia Cornwell novel, Cruel & Unusual, that explains how the FBI uses Roxie's science; across the room is the elegant eagle statue that the Bird Strike Committee USA presented her, its Lifetime Achievement Award; on another wall is a plaque that honors her contribution to "A Study of Bird Ingestions Into Large High-Bypass Ratio Turbine Aircraft Engines."
Dominating the wall behind her is a giant color print of a peregrine falcon, and other bird drawings are scattered about. But she's not emotionally attached to birds. They just happen to be the subject of her study (Quick from Scratch Chicken has its place among her cookbooks).
She'll talk about most anything except family. There were two husbands, though the first marriage didn't last long. "He got to drinking, but we don't need to go into that. He got mad and left one day. I didn't stop him."
Her second husband, E.G. Laybourne, died in 1966. He was a famous taxidermist at the Smithsonian. Roxie has one son from each marriage, Grimmer, 62, and Rob, 45.
She takes special pride in her teeth. She has her originals, not a falsie in the bunch.
"I brush them and I floss them and I use Stim-U-Dents. I try not to use them for anything other than the reason God gave them to me."
Her sturdy teeth are a symbol of her lifelong devotion to good health. You see plenty of johnny-come-latelys who start eating salads and power-walking after a heart attack or surgery, but Roxie has been on a health kick all her life. She never smoked, she avoided fatty foods and she ate lots of fruits and vegetables. "Your body has to be taken care of like any other engine." (She's no zealot, though; she'll enjoy a beer "if there's somebody to share it with.")
She drove her Datsun 280-ZX until she turned 83, bragging when she got a speeding ticket. As Dove puts it, "She drove like a bat out of hell." Five years since she stopped driving, Roxie still talks about the Z's engine the way other 80-year-old women talk about poodles.
"It was a straight-six," she says wistfully. "I loooooved the sound of that engine."
The broken hip in 1995 was a turning point. At a conference of the Bird Strike Committee in Dallas, someone bumped into her, sending her tumbling to the floor.
After the surgery, friends worried that she might die. At her age, a broken hip often begins a steady deterioration. But she came back strong, recuperating with a niece who kept Roxie entertained with a bookshelf of romance novels.
"That's where I learned about sex! I didn't know a damn thing about sex before that!"
She no longer has the freedom to zip off to Washington in the Z, or any other car, for that matter. She relies on Rob to take her places. Dying doesn't worry her, being incapacitated does.
"I don't want to be hanging around when I can't do something. It's the quality of life that matters, not the quantity."
She still does the feather work for the engine manufacturers, though Dove has taken over the big Air Force contract. Roxie hasn't told her when she will inherit the rest of the work but quietly told others that she wanted to live long enough to see Dove earn her Ph.D.
That happened a year ago, giving Roxie the perfect opportunity to retire, once and for all. She didn't.
"I don't know if it occurs to her that retirement is an option," Dove says. "She never talks about giving up."
Roxie's eyes have improved in the past two months and she has resumed identifying feathers for engine companies. But she has plenty of free time, which means more opportunity to obsess about the poem. She is challenging friends and colleagues to memorize it with her, trying to finish by the end of the year, in honor of the Meredith College centennial.
The poem has taught her far more than she expected. She couldn't understand it when she was in college, she says, because she wasn't ready. She hadn't experienced life.
Now, as she conquers each stanza -- she's mastered 26 of 32 -- she is discovering the poem's meaning much the way she learned to read feathers. She finds that it's about success and wisdom and growing up, things she couldn't understand 70 years ago.