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:


  • Every birder and conservationist in the world should stand in awe of what Ted Parker was able to accomplish in such a short amount of time. Anyone who has ever picked up a copy of Kingbird Highway knows how amazing he was even as a very young person. Thank god that that world of ornithology, birding and conservation was blessed to have this man as our advocate if even just for a very abbreviated time. Thank you, Ted and may you rest in peace. May all the birds of the world sing for you!

  • richard g taylor

    Great tribute to Ted Parker !!!!
    Now do one on BEN Coffey Jr., a close friend of Ted’s
    I helped BEN band over 100,000 swifts. Not an ornithologist, Ben lived birding, and received 3 pages in the AUK upon his death.

  • Kevin Breen

    I’ve always been interested in Ted Parker, and thought he was an amazing person. Don Stap’s “A Parrot With No Name,” I believe, has some really interesting writing on Parker. Thanks for the tip on Kingbird Highway, which I hadn’t heard of and will check out,

  • Sandra Paci

    FYI – Kingbird Highway is the story of a big year done by Kenn Kaufman as a young man, not Ted Parker.

  • Tim Gallagher

    Yes, both Parrot Without a Name and Kingbird Highway are excellent books and provide a great portrait of Ted, what a remarkable and unique person he was.

  • Rachel Dickinson

    This is such a poignant piece. His legacies of recordings at the Lab and the concept of rapid assessment are breathtaking memorials to his brilliance and life’s work. I wish I had met him.

  • Tim Gallagher

    Yes, I know that Kingbird Highway is a memoir of Kenn’s early days in birding, but Ted Parker was a good friend of Kenn’s and the book provides a great portrait of Ted when he was younger. Reading both of these books you can learn a great deal about Ted.

  • Jill Edwards

    A few years ago I happened upon a copy of A Parrot Without a Name and was dismayed to find out after finishing the book (and googling some of the key characters) that Ted Parker had perished so young. His passion for conservation and knowledge has been very inspiring to me. Although I have had a small interest in conservation, birds and birding for many years, my interest has grown phenomenally since reading that book. I spend more time birding in my local parks and more time on birding holidays. I am subscribing to Living Bird and buying some of the bird song recordings (which have been very helpful), and started volunteering about a year ago for a local conservation group called FLAP. Thanks so much for posting this!

  • Just added a note about Ted’s help in establishing the Madidi National Park to the ‘Effort’ section on the Wikipedia page for the park: including a link to this blog.

  • This article on Ted Parker should be taken personally to the Bill Gates and Warren Buffets and every other deep pocket businessman until somebody steps forward to create an endowment in the honor of Ted Parker so that funding can put 10 more Ted Parkers out there helping to save the planet from the outrageous destruction of today. Gates and Buffet and other world’s richest hold meetings to discuss what they can do with their money. PLEASE be there to show them why Cornell deserves to be in line. Even businessmen, if shown the proper story, will realize a planet without biodiversity will be a life not worth living.

  • Tim Gallagher

    It’s truly amazing how many people have been inspired by Ted Parker to become staunch conservationists–both those who knew him personally and others who were touched by the example he set.

  • Tim Gallagher

    I completely agree. Thank you for pointing this out.

  • Tim Gallagher

    That’s great! Thank you.

  • Mike

    My condolensces to Mr. Parker’s family.

  • Bob Warren

    I’ll share a personal anecdote about Ted that dates back to the 1980s when he was a tour leader for VENT out of Austin. This was at a time when VENT still did a few tours in really remote areas that required overnight camping. I was the camp outfitter and cook (and avid birder) for a Ted-led tour in the Tepuis and lowland rain forest of Venezuela, and on one occasion we were walking a rainforest trail, surrounded by a chorus of birdcalls, when Ted suddenly froze, pointed to the forest, and said, “There, listen, did you hear that? That bird should be at least 300 miles from here!” Finally, we all picked out the faint call in the distance, and Ted said, “We have to find that bird”. I recall that we eventually did locate the bird, which was a new record for that area, although I can’t recall the species. All of us were of course awestruck by Ted’s amazing working vocabulary of bird calls and his uncanny ability to instantly recognize and pick out an outlier amongst the din of the local chatter.

  • Diana Hill

    What an awesome tribute to a man that has contributed so much

  • Tim Gallagher

    Thanks, Bob. That’s a great story and perfectly captures how amazing Ted was in the field.

  • Tim Gallagher

    Thank you, Diana. Ted was truly amazing.

  • Dr. James Remsen Jr.

    My Ted-related story. I never met him, but I recall hearing of his passing in such a way that I will never forget it.

    Twenty years ago in 1993, right around this time of year, I was attending orientation for new graduate students at NYU. I was just entering the Ph.D. program in Biology there. A faculty member from the English department got up and began speaking about the recent passing of his brother, and described his work studying birds in tropical America. The professor’s name was Parker, and slowly my jaw dropped as I realized he was talking about Ted. I knew of Ted’s work in the field, but here–on my first day as a Ph.D. student–I was hearing for the very first time that he was gone.

    I was President of my local Audubon Society chapter at the time, and did a little piece on Ted for our monthly newsletter.

    I still have the old “Voices of the Peruvian Rainforest” tape from Cornell, but I’m glad to have the download. I hope a lot of people who haven’t heard these wonderful recordings will take advantage of the opportunity to do so now.

  • Betsy Mellor

    To Robert Stalnaker:
    There is funding assistance provided for someone doing research in S.American Ornithology, in memory of Ted Parker, at Lousiana State University c/o Van Remsen at the Natural History Museum.

  • Marco Antonio de Andrade, Biologist, Brasil

    Ted Parker foi, sem dúvida, um renomado Ornitólogo e que muito contribuiu com o avanço da Ornitologia na América do Sul. Deixou um grande legado e importante acervo de vozes de aves da Amazônia, Brazil. Suas obras, estudos, livros e gravações são verdadeiros incentivos para os jovens Ornitologistas e observadores de aves. Thank you for your dedication in Bird Study in the nature.

  • Lynne C

    Thank you for this post honoring a wonderful man. May his life and work be an inspiration to all the people in the world who believe that we can save nature from ourselves.

  • Tim Gallagher

    Thank you, Lynne. We also plan to publish a feature article about Ted Parker in the Autumn issue of Living Bird to celebrate Ted’s life and the inspiration he still provides for so many people.

  • Nancy Blechschmidt

    After attending Ted’s memorial service(I never met him; his parents were family friends), I was awed and inspired by this very talented young man and the tributes made to him at the time still bring tears to my eyes. Obviously, his life and accomplishments continue to inspire. I look forward to the next LIVING BIRD.

  • Gregg Gorton

    Thanks to Tim for a moving tribute. –For a biography of Ted Parker that I have been working on since 2004, please feel free to contact me with any memories of Ted you care to share. A blog piece that I have written about him will appear in the ABA (American Birding Association) blog soon.

  • scott scheiber

    Mention should also be made of Harold Morrin, who was Ted’s mentor in his early days in Lancaster County. Harold provided many opportunities for young Ted to travel throughout the US on birding trips. I was introduced to Ted by Harold, at Harold’s home in Lancaster County, and it was very clear that Ted held Harold in very high regard as a person, and for the many years of help that Harold had provided.

  • Gregg Gorton

    Harold Morrin played a crucial facilitating role in Ted’s early birding life, as you indicate. Tim was limited by space considerations, I suspect, in his tribute. For more detail, please see my blog piece at: — and please contact me for the biography of Ted that I am working on.

  • Tim Gallagher

    I agree that Harold should have been mentioned—and certainly a number of other people. Thank you for pointing that out. It would have been impossible to include everyone in the space of a feature article. Ted really needs to have a book written about his life.

  • Tim Gallagher

    I should add that Gregg Gorton has been working on a book about Ted for several years, interviewing countless people who were part of his life. I’m really looking forward to reading it.

  • Breck Breckenridge

    I doubt that Ted is “resting”. We are quite active in the life between lives world, and at some point we plan our next incarnation. I am certain that Ted was somebody very great in his other lives. He set up this 1953 life very carefully and felt that 40 years was enough time to do what he wanted. He was right of course. He made the rest of us look like we were standing still!