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TED PARKER (1953-1993)


Ted Parker was renowned even during his short lifetime as “the most gifted field ornithologist of the 20th century” (Robbins, Graves, and Remsen 1997, 1).  With a bulky reel-to-reel tape recorder hanging from his shoulder, he spent about six months of the year in the field for nineteen years, sometimes on his own, sometimes guiding birders for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, sometimes on expeditions with LSU’s John O’Neill.  He made over fifteen thousand recordings, developing his expertise to the point that he could identify virtually any Neotropical bird by song alone. A story from an expedition to Ecuador in 1991 gives one the flavor of listening to birds with Parker: “Later, on foot,” a journalist wrote, “he [Parker] says ‘The accelerating sort of staccato is a blue-tailed trogon. I’ve never heard it before.’ How, then, does he know what he’s hearing?  ‘Because it’s the only Neotropical trogon I haven’t heard’” (Conniff 1991, 42).  He detected birds that other people missed: A measure of how many is the “Big Day” record he set in 1982 with his friend Scott Robinson, seeing 331 species in one day at a site in southeastern Peru.

Parker made enormous contributions to science, summarized in the appropriately titled “The Pervasive Influence of Ted Parker on Neotropical Field Ornithology,” written by his colleagues J. V. Remsen and Thomas Schulenberg (1997). While most ornithologists would be pleased to make a mark in one area, Remsen and Schulenberg identify seven areas in which Parker changed the way scientists work with Neotropical birds, mostly involving focus on bird vocalizations and foraging behavior as keys to understanding bird communities, taxonomy, biogeography, and field identification. Another contribution, by no means least, was his dedication to conservation; he died in a plane crash in the midst of doing a biological survey of a mountainous region of southwest Ecuador.  It is also worth mentioning, since many people who knew him are still living, that he had intangible gifts: “Ted was charming. From campesinos living next to parks, to Nobel scientists, to movie stars with funds to donate, to presidents of countries, they all loved talking with him, because they could tell he was well-informed and passionate about his beliefs” (ibid., 13).