Roxie Laybourne: the World’s First Forensic Ornithologist

Starlings (Photo by Peter Byrne/PA Images via Getty Images)

If you love birds, you’ll enjoy “Bird Man” by Eva Holland. It’s a deeply researched essay on extreme birding and the innate human need to classify the world around us.

Using her deep knowledge of bird anatomy, she solved crimes of passion and busted poachers. She helped reduce bird-strike-induced aviation accidents and disasters. At Audobon, Chris Sweeney introduces us to birder-extraordinaire Roxie Laybourne, the world’s first forensic ornithologist, who died in 2003 at age 92.

As part of a nine-month investigation, officials sent the bird remains to the Smithsonian Institution, where they made their way to the desk of Roxie Laybourne. Laybourne had been at the Smithsonian for 15 years and during that time had prepared thousands of bird specimens from around the world for research purposes. Over all that time and all those birds, she had started homing in on the subtle differences in the structure of feathers. It wasn’t hard for her to confirm that the birds hit in Boston were European Starlings.

The FAA’s final accident report, issued in July 1962, concluded that Flight 375 had struck a large flock—perhaps as many as 20,000 starlings—as it lifted off. This, in turn, caused three of the four engines to malfunction in a way that was impossible for the pilot to recover.

For most people, the accident report closed the books on Flight 375. For Laybourne, it marked the start of a remarkable scientific journey that was at times as thrilling as it was bizarre. She’d go on to establish the field of forensic ornithology, and the methods she developed for feather identification would be used to prosecute murderers, bust poachers, and inform conservation efforts. Most importantly, her work would entirely reshape our understanding of the threat birds and airplanes pose to one another—a threat that continues to hang over every airplane in the sky today.

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