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Ted Parker: PA’s legendary conservationist

“Fourteen species of hummingbirds, such as this ruby-throated hummingbird, are defined as neotropical migrants under the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act. Ted Parker specialized in the birds of South America, although his love of birds was born in Pennsylvania.”
TRR photo by Sandy Long

December 4, 2013

Twenty years ago, the world lost one of the most renowned ornithologists and one of the greatest field biologists of the 20th century. Ted Parker died at the age of 40 in a plane crash while pursuing what he loved most—the study of South America’s birds. In his honor, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (CLO) is offering a free digital download of his recordings from “Voices from the Peruvian Rainforest” (available at

A member of the CLO’s administrative board, Parker pushed for a stronger emphasis on conservation and was influential in shaping its vision and direction.

Although Parker spent most of his adult life in tropical rainforests in Peru, Brazil, Bolivia and Ecuador, this accomplished naturalist was raised in Lancaster, PA, where his love of birds began.

As a child, he spent countless hours exploring the natural environments around his home. An avid birder in elementary school, he continued to hone his skills of observation and tallied 627 species in his last semester of high school and first semester of college, breaking a prior record of 598 species.

Parker made high-quality sound recordings of wildlife wherever he traveled, keeping meticulous field notes as well. “He had a phenomenal ability to remember wildlife sounds and could instantly identify more than 4,000 bird species by their songs alone,” wrote Tim Gallagher, editor of CLO’s “Living Bird” magazine.

“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.”

Despite his short lifespan, Parker accomplished a great deal due to his intense focus and commitment. Following his research in the Madidi region of Bolivia, he urged the president to preserve that region due to its being one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world. As a result, 4.5 million acres of tropical wilderness were set aside to establish Madidi National Park.

Describing Parker’s death as a staggering loss to the conservation community that can still be felt today, the Cornell Lab has launched a special effort to pay the cost of shipping Parker’s bird sound guides to schoolchildren and conservationists in Latin America and the Caribbean (visit bitly/18RJ8ma).