The Legacy of Ted Parker

By Tim Gallagher
July 31, 2013
Ted Parker Ted Parker in Guyana; photograph by Haroldo Castro/Conservation International

August 3, 2013, marks the 20th anniversary of the death of renowned ornithologist Theodore A. Parker III, who is widely regarded as one of the greatest field biologists of the 20th century. A dedicated conservationist, he died in a plane crash while surveying a remote cloud forest in Ecuador.

Only 40 years old at the time of his death, Ted was a specialist in the birds of South America and spent the bulk of his adult life working in tropical rainforests in Peru, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, and other countries in the region. He had a phenomenal ability to remember wildlife sounds and could instantly identify more than 4,000 bird species by their songs alone. He made high-quality sound recordings of wildlife wherever he traveled, and always wrote meticulous field notes to accompany them.

Ted was an amazing person right from the start. Even as a child, he knew he wanted to be a naturalist and spent countless hours exploring the woods and fields around his home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He was an avid birder since childhood and in 1971–during his last semester of high school and first semester of college–he did a big year, tallying 627 species in a single year, smashing the existing big-year record of 598 species.

Ted Parker’s importance in shaping the vision and direction of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology cannot be overstated. He was a prominent member of the Lab’s administrative board and pushed successfully for a stronger emphasis on conservation. He certainly had an influence on the direction of Living Bird. I’ll never forget the first time I met him, in 1991, just a few months after I’d moved to Ithaca from California to become editor of the magazine. At that time, I’d only put out two issues of the magazine. Ted was here to add some new bird sound recordings to the Lab’s collection and edit and catalog them. He sat in my office and basically took me to task for not doing more for conservation. I was taken aback. I told him I’d taken this job in the hope that I could do some good for wildlife conservation. And he said, “What are you waiting for?”

It was a point well taken, and by the end of our talk, I felt inspired. On the cover of the very next issue, I put the phrase “For the Study and Conservation of Birds” right under the Living Bird logo, just so no one would have any doubt about our editorial mission, and I began publishing more articles on bird conservation.

Ted Parker; photo by Ken Rosenberg

Ted was a vital contributor to the Cornell Lab’s Macaulay Library (then called the Library of Natural Sounds) and helped build this sound archive into the world-class collection that it is today, adding some 10,000 recordings to the collection, representing more than 2,000 species of birds, mammals, and amphibians.

Ted’s death was a staggering loss to the conservation community. He was a senior scientist at Conservation International at the time of his death and leader of the group’s Rapid Assessment Program (RAP), which took a small team of top scientists to remote areas in the tropics that had never been biologically surveyed and determined their level of biodiversity and potential for conservation, accomplishing in a matter of days what previously might have taken individual scientists months or years. These areas often faced imminent environmental destruction, and it was always a race to save them. (This kind of rapid-assessment survey has since become a mainstay of conservation science.)

Ted Parker had a deep passion for conservation. With this, and his incredible drive and charisma, he made things happen. The RAP program was Ted’s brainchild, and he assembled its first team—which included legendary botanist, Al Gentry, who also died with him in the plane crash. Their initial expedition was to the Madidi region of Bolivia, which turned out to be one of the most biologically diverse areas on the entire planet. In a face-to-face meeting with the president of Bolivia, Ted discussed the results of the RAP survey and stressed the importance of saving this unique area. As a result of these efforts, Bolivia established Madidi National Park, setting aside a staggering 4.5 million acres of tropical wilderness—an area the size of New Jersey.

Ted continued leading RAP team surveys, and he was on one—conducting an aerial survey of an Ecuadorian cloud forest—in August 1993 when the airplane crashed, killing him and four of his colleagues. Looking back on Ted’s brief life, we can only marvel at all that he accomplished and draw inspiration from the example he set.

In Ted Parker’s honor, the Cornell Lab is offering a free digital download of his recordings from “Voices of the Peruvian Rainforest,” which was first produced as an audiocassette in 1985. The Lab has also launched a special effort to pay the cost of shipping Ted Parker’s bird sound guides to schoolchildren and conservationists in Latin America and the Caribbean.

More about Ted Parker: