There has perhaps never been an ornithologist more famous in the United States than Ted Parker. He was well-known to both amateur and professional ornithologists, and he made astounding contributions to the field with only an undergraduate degree, publishing a large number of research studies and popular field guide content. He helped bridge conservation biology, amateur ornithology and professional ornithology in remarkable ways. He also helped put LSU’s ornithology program on the map. He also has a number of bird species named after him!
Ted grew up as an avid birdwatcher. As a young man, he worked as an unpaid research associate of the LSU Museum of Natural Science and made a living leading bird tours. A dedicated birder and conservationist, he died tragically young in a plane crash while surveying a remote cloud forest in Ecuador. But Ted’s legacy in the field of ornithology is outstanding – it changed the field forever. The LSU College of Science honored Ted’s legacy last week by naming him into the CoS Hall of Distinction.
We talked with Van Remsen, Curator of Birds at the LSU Museum of Natural Science and McIlhenny Distinguished Professor of Natural Sciences, and Robb Brumfield, Director of the LSU Museum of Natural Science and Director and Roy Paul Daniels Professor of Biology, about Ted Parker’s legacy and outstanding contributions to bird science.
LSU College of Science: Can you tell us about Ted Parker’s background? How did he come to be a famous ornithologist at such a young age?
Robb: Ted was a birder from infancy. As soon as he could hold binoculars and focus on birds, he did. He grew up in Lancaster, PA. As a young bird watcher, he frequently visited local natural history museums, and quickly made an impression. Ted’s prominence as a superstar birdwatcher grew because it was quickly apparent that he had some special natural talents, particularly in being able to identify birds by their songs.
As the ornithology program at LSU was starting to conduct fieldwork in Central and South America, there was an effort to get Ted on LSU expeditions to provide his expertise on bird songs. Ted jumped on the opportunity to visit the place on this planet with more birds than any other place in the world. After that first expedition, Ted began a collaboration with LSU that lasted his whole career.
LSU College of Science: How did you met Ted Parker?
Van: When I first met Ted, I was a graduate student at Berkeley. I was studying South American birds in Colombia along the Amazon River for my dissertation. I heard that there was this guy named Ted Parker who was only an undergraduate but had started studying South American birds at the University of Arizona and was collaborating with LSU. I reached out and made a trip to Tucson to hang out with Ted and some of his friends there and talk about South American birds.
We hit it off great and were good friends from that point on. It was quite a pivotal moment for me, because at Berkley there was no one to talk to about South American or tropical birds. I was learning new things about tropical birds in grad school and was dying to talk to somebody else. After meeting Ted, I realized I didn’t know half as much about South American birds as I thought I did. It was quite humbling to see what real knowledge of these birds was – from an undergraduate.
Robb: I first met Ted around the same time that I discovered the Museum of Natural Science and ornithology program here at LSU. As an undergraduate student, let’s just say I had a diversity of interests, but when I took my first ornithology class with Dr. Vam Remsen, a light bulb went off for me. In that class, Dr. Remsen invited Ted Parker as a guest lecturer. I’d never heard of him. Ted came into our class one day and used an album of bird vocalizations to introduce us to the world of bird songs. We had been learning how to identify birds by sight, but Ted taught us that you could actually identify birds by the songs that they make, without ever identifying them by eye.
I later did an undergraduate research project in Dr. Remsen’s lab on Andean birds, and Ted was a huge help. Even though I was just a lowly undergraduate student at the time, he treated me like I was one of the research crew in the museum. He encouraged me to go on to graduate school.
I also bonded with Ted was on the basketball court. He was an avid basketball fan. I’d say basketball was his number two only to ornithology. He would go to every LSU basketball game and a few days a week after work, we would go over to the old Fieldhouse and we would play basketball games. He was a small power forward and I’m a tall guy, so I would take great pleasure in occasionally blocking one of his shots!
LSU College of Science: What was your first impression of Ted Parker?
Van: When I first met Ted, I thought, this guy is going places. He had all the potential in the world to be a major contributor to tropical bird biology. He must have been 22 at the time, but it was clear he was going places. He had the motivation, the drive, the intelligence, the work ethic and the charisma.
LSU College of Science: Can you tell us about your scientific relationship or friendship with Ted?
Van: When I became a professor at LSU, which was a dream come true for me, Ted was working here as a research associate. He traveled with me to Bolivia to help me start my fieldwork there. We spent a summer together in the foothills of the Andes. We also later spent part of a summer in Peru together and part of a summer in Northern Bolivia.
LSU College of Science: How did Ted change the face of birding and ornithological science?
Van: It’s difficult to summarize Ted’s contributions in one or two sentences. I think his biggest contribution, though, or the way he really changed the face of ornithology, was his work showing that unless you learn bird vocalizations, you are only at the tip of the iceberg in terms of studying them. Tropical birds are much more secretive and harder to spot than our temperate latitude birds. You needed to know what they sounded like.
Ted studied bird vocalizations all the time. In the early 80s, he went to Peru to visit a team of famous researchers who were studying tropical bird biology. They had been in studying birds in a small area, a square kilometer of tropical forest, for a decade at that point. In a few weeks Ted added 20 species to the list of birds that occurred there on a regular basis, which the other researchers hadn’t seen in 10 years. How did he do that? He knew the vocalizations.
Robb: That’s a difficult question to answer, because Ted had so many great achievements. He deposited more than 15 thousand tape recordings of birds into the Cornell Library of Natural Sounds. Those are high quality bird recordings that researchers can use now and into the future. During his time at LSU, going on expeditions, he also collected a large number of research specimen. But his biggest achievements were probably in pioneering the use of bird vocalizations to census natural places. Ted could be dropped by a helicopter in a jungle in Peru that no one had ever visited, and without even looking up, just walking through the forest and listening, he could give you a list of the birds that occurred there in a couple of hours. To do that, you’d have to know the bird species likely to occur there, and the vocalizations of birds not found there as well. With 500 or more bird species singing at the same time, you’d have to have an incredible knowledge of the bird vocalizations to produce a list of species.
Ted Parker also helped to produce the first field guide to the birds of Peru. It’s a monumental undertaking to produce the first comprehensive field guide for a country that’s as biological rich as Peru. Ted wasn’t able to complete it in his relatively short lifetime, but it did end up getting finished by some other LSU ornithologists. That book has now opened the door to being able to teach ornithology in Peru and inspiring young Peruvian students to study birds. Thanks to that field guide, birding has blossomed in Peru. Peru’s Interior Minister even named it a landmark book for Peru’s birdwatching industry.
LSU College of Science: What made Ted stand out from other ornithologists and other birders?
Van: Ted’s focus on bird vocalizations was dramatic. He had a 1-2-3 punch in terms of incredible work ethic, talent and charisma. His ear for bird songs was extraordinary – he had an extra-planetary quality of hearing. His charisma was one of the key ingredients of his success – he could make friends with people very easily.
LSU College of Science: What unique or meaningful contributions did Ted make to science at LSU and to the field in general?
Van: Ted was an essential part of the LSU Museum of Natural Science’s ornithology program, even though he was not on the faculty. Just his presence here elevated our game. We were always trying to keep up with him in terms of knowledge. We could see that Ted had great insights into fundamental questions about tropical bird biology. He combined knowledge of vocalizations with knowledge of feeding behavior, natural history and habitat, in a way that nobody else had. We were all trying to emulate him and follow in his footsteps in acquiring and expanding that knowledge.
Ted invented the Rapid Assessment Program. He was like all of us distressed at the rate of tropical forest destruction and discouraged about the slow progress that was being made in terms of deciding which natural areas should be set aside and protected. He developed a program whereby experts in areas such as botany, ornithology and mammalogy could go into an area of rainforest, for example, and in hours assess, through bird songs present for example, the ecological diversity and value of conserving that area.
The Vice President of Bolivia said this about Ted: “It’s men like this who make our country great.”
LSU College of Science: Ted is remembered as knowing birds better than anyone. Can you tell us more about his legacy from your perspective? Or how did his intimate knowledge of birds influence your own science?
Van: Ted was known as having a larger knowledge of bird biology that anybody else, even though he never had any formal academic training. He taught the world that even without degrees, if someone works and studies hard they can make major contributions to science. He was a model for a lot of people. He was the person who catalyzed a cohort of young, non-academic contributors to biology who would head to the tropics and try to do what Ted did in terms of producing new knowledge about birds.
LSU College of Science: Did Ted have a favorite bird?
Van: I would predict that it was probably a thrush called Lawrence’s Thrush, Turdus Lawrencii. There’s a little brown thrush that lives in the canopies of the Amazon that imitates the songs and calls of other birds. Nobody knew that this bird didn’t have its own song until Ted Parker figured this out. It sits 50-100 feet up in a canopy making the call of one bird, pausing, and then making the call of another bird. It even imitates the calls of frogs and insect! In this little bird is an incredible repertoire of imitated vocalizations. It took Ted a long time to figure out where all of these sounds were coming from. He finally recorded Lawrence’s Thrush imitating all of these birds and other sounds.
LSU: How did Ted learn so many different bird vocalizations?
Robb: Ted was able to learn 10 thousand bird vocalizations similarly to how a professional musician would. Ted had perfect pitch and could have been a musician if he had decided to. But he also practiced and practiced and practiced. When he was in the field, Ted would get up at 3:30 am so he could walk the trail and position himself with his tape recording equipment to be ready for the dawn chorus. The dawn chorus is the moment of first light in the day when every bird species begins to sing. It’s the time of the day when birds are most vocal. It’s the time of day that you want to be out there recording the birds. Ted would lug around a 40 pound recorder with a large parabolic microphone and wake up before everyone else and slip out and do his tape recordings every morning that he was in the field. The rest of the day he would spend annotating his recordings, listening to them, identifing the species that he knew and making notes about the species that he didn’t. When he got back home, he would sit around and listen to those recordings over and over. A frequent occurrence would be to go to Ted’s house and see an LSU basketball game playing but the volume is off, because Ted was listening to tape recordings and learning bird songs. By doing that, he built up his knowledge. But to do that you’d have to have the natural talent to pick out the different tones. It’s amazing. It’s unbelievable. He had encyclopedic knowledge of birds.
LSU College of Science: Ted’s fieldwork expeditions spanned two decades. How did he change fieldwork expeditions for the museum of natural science?
Robb: Ted has a lasting legacy at the Museum of Natural Science. While he was still alive, Ted was a magnet for students around the country and around the world who wanted to come to get their graduate degree at LSU to interact with the famous Ted Parker and to learn the methods he used. We are still attracting outstanding ornithologists from around the world. One of the most important impacts Ted had on the ornithology program here was to emphasize the importance of bird vocalizations. He also really emphasized the value of archiving bird recordings for future generations. A lot of the places that we at the museum and Ted in his day visited are being or impacted heavily by logging or other types of conversion of natural habitat. There are places that we visited in the Andes, beautiful cloud forests, that are now just complete pasture. The bird vocalizations from these locations that are archived are a lasting record of the species that occur there and what they sounded like in that specific locality. Another interesting thing that Ted really drove home about the value of vocalization is their value for studying species diversity. It turns out that birds sound different depending on where you are. A bird where it occurs in Peru will sound different from where it occurs in Bolivia, even if the two birds look identical. You may not be able to pick up on it just by looking at these birds, but they may be different species.
LSU College of Science: A few years ago, LSU’s birding team broke Ted’s record for the number of bird species found in a day. What was it like to break the birding record of one of ornithology’s greatest?
Robb: A few years ago some of my graduate students came to me with the idea of attempting to break Ted Parker’s record for most bird species identified in 24 hours – it’s called a Big Day. I was all for the idea. They mounted a team, headed to Peru and managed to break the long-held Parker record. It was a big deal because it got us a lot of press around the world, but I think importantly it inspired a lot of bird watchers out there to undertake similar feats. I know Ted would have been absolutely pleased that his record had been broken, and I think he would be incredibly impressed at the number of bird watchers that are now working in Peru largely because of his field guide and previous work there.