Recordist of Note: Theodore “Ted” Parker III

William Young, a young birder from Pennsylvania, first came across Ted Parker’s name in Kenn Kauffman’s Kingbird Highway at age eight. Young was fascinated by Parker’s birding adventures and was amazed to discover that Ted Parker grew up in the same town—Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Not only are Parker and Young from the same town, but Young grew up ten minutes from Parker’s childhood home. Young was ecstatic; his newfound hero went birding in the same places he did.

Young’s passion for birds and the Neotropics continued to grow over the years and by age 11 Young decided he wanted to follow in Parker’s footsteps and become a Neotropical ornithologist. But that wasn’t all, Young also decided to write a book about Ted Parker’s life. Young says his book is in the beginning stages, but he agreed to share notes from his book with the Macaulay Library.

Recordist of Note: Theodore “Ted” Parker III
By William Young

Who contributed over 10,000 recordings of birds to science? Who was instantly able to recognize the vocalizations of over 4,000 species of birds? Who worked tirelessly to protect and preserve birds and wild places? Theodore “Ted” Parker III, perhaps one of the most brilliant birders, ornithologists, and conservationists of all time, is accredited to the aforementioned accomplishments.

Occasionally factors align to produce an exceptional naturalist. Roger Tory Peterson, John James Audubon, and Alexander Wilson are all remarkable individuals who come to mind. Ted Parker (deemed the “Mozart of Birding” by Victor Emanuel) is another extraordinary naturalist. Born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania on April 1st, 1953, he was raised in a household where he and his siblings were encouraged to pursue their passions and dreams. Ted often wandered through Lancaster County in search of wildlife, at one point he even purchased fish from the local market to acquire seashells from their stomachs! Birds held Ted’s fascination more than any natural creature, however. His passion for avian life was refined and sharpened as he approached his teenage years.

At twelve years of age, Ted requested to join the Lancaster County Bird Club and his membership was regarded dubiously by the members. They soon were amazed that this phenom could identify birds better than they could. The vocalizations of birds fascinated Ted, and he soon learned, almost intuitively, to identify almost all the birds of the region by ear. This young talent soon caught the attention of Harold Morrin, a bird club member and a welcoming figure to young and new birders alike. He befriended Ted, and a close friendship ensued between them.

Soon, Morrin and the teenaged Ted were driving around the country in search of birds. The more he spent time with Ted, the more Morrin was amazed at this young man’s skill, incredible ear, and exceptional foresight. In his final year of school at McCaskey High School, Ted undertook a Big Year for North America. Ted crushed the existing record of 598 bird species with a whopping 627, without even visiting Alaska! Finally, the North American birding community was aware of this young man’s birding prowess.

Ted began his college studies in biology at the University of Arizona, but was often distracted from his coursework with visits to Mexico and fantastic birding locations in Southern Arizona. During his college years, Ted experienced his first taste of the Neotropics with trips to Mexico. One time, while birding with friends in southern Mexico, he encountered someone with a young Horned Guan, a large rare bird hardly known to science at the time. He and his friends bartered camping equipment for the immature bird, and brought them to be raised under the auspices of an eminent Mexican biologist, Miguel Alvarez del Toro. This was only the beginning of Ted’s illustrious career of scientific discovery. Later in his life, Ted would blaze a new path in Neotropical ornithology and sound recording.

Eared Quetzal Euptilotis neoxenus

  • Durango, Mexico

During his time at the University of Arizona, Ted had the opportunity to join a field research expedition to Peru organized by Louisiana State University (LSU). George Lowery, then the director of LSU’s museum, called Ted at University of Arizona, inquiring if he was interested in joining that year’s expedition. Ted readily agreed, and joined the group.

After his first trip to Peru, Ted became intensely interested in the deep tropics. Ted continually accompanied LSU on these expeditions, sometimes finding new species of birds deep within the Neotropical rainforests. He offset his expenses by leading tours for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, and soon became a favored tour leader. It was during this time that Ted was given audio recording requirement by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. From then on Ted recorded almost every bird he heard, and amassed an incredible database, not to mention knowledge, of Neotropical avian vocalizations. Over 10,000 of Ted’s recordings are now held in the Macaulay Library. Ted’s recordings are highly regarded, and are often considered to be one of his finest legacies.

Scaled Antpitta Grallaria guatimalensis

  • Venezuela

Perhaps even more monumental, though, is his Rapid Assessment Program created in conjunction with Conservation International, a non-governmental organization dedicated to the preservation of critical nature areas. The goal of this program was to rapidly assess critical biodiversity areas in a period of several weeks to a month, instead of the several months to a year normally required. A professional team of preeminent biologists would fly over a critical area, conduct wildlife surveys, and acquire pertinent information about a specific location during one of these assessments. The Rapid Assessment Program is still in use today, and continues to save critical wild places throughout the world.

In the afternoon of August 2nd, 1993, during one of these rapid assessments in Ecuador, Ted found himself on a small prop plane with some of the most distinguished Neotropical biologists in the world including Al Gentry, Jaqueline Goerck, Eduardo Aspiazu, Alfredo Luna, and Carmen Bonifaz. The pilot, having become confused in the foggy conditions, crashed into a mountain. Ted Parker, Al Gentry, Eduardo Aspiazu, and the pilot died in this tragic plane crash. It has been estimated that Ted and the other biologists contained over two thirds of the world’s unpublished information on the tropics in their heads. Ted may have gone on to discover even greater things in his life, as he was only 40 when he tragically died in this crash.

Ted Parker’s remarkable impact on bird recording has inspired generations of avian recordists, birders, and ornithologists. This man’s high standards in ornithology and bird recording are a challenge to live up to, whether one be a novice or a professional in avian pursuits. Indeed, although Ted Parker may have passed away decades ago, his remarkable contribution to science and humanity still lives on.