THEODORE PARKER, the conservationist and biologist, was widely regarded as the leading authority on the bird life of South America. He died in a plane crash in Ecuador in which the botanist Alwyn Gentry was also killed.
Parker's powers of observation were unsurpassed. He was familiar with the details of posture, behaviour, and habitat of thousands of species of bird and was known for his ability to identify over 4,000 species by call or song alone. He possessed an encyclopaedic knowledge of the distribution of birds and habitats across Latin America, and was able to bring this knowledge to bear on a wide range of questions concerning bird biology and conservation in the tropics. No experiences were as exhilarating to me, nor as humbling, as time spent with Parker in the field.
Parker was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1953. His interest in birds, which was strongly encouraged by his parents, developed when he was young. Having already travelled extensively in the United States on birding expeditions during his teenage years, he went to the University of Arizona, largely because it provided the opportunity to explore Mexico. Parker's skills came to the attention of specialists in tropical birds, and he was recruited by Louisiana State University in 1973 to join an expedition to Peru. Parker left Arizona with a degree in 1977, but his association with LSU continued until his death.
For over 20 years Parker studied birds in almost all parts of Latin America and the Caribbean. His concerns about tropical conservation and his talents in the field found a home in 1989 when he joined Conservation International, a non-profit organisation based in Washington DC. On behalf of CI, Parker established the pioneering Rapid Assessment Program, which used a select team of biologists (including Al Gentry) with experience in the tropics to survey the conservation potential of remote areas. The RAP team often used light aircraft for aerial reconnaissance, and it was during such a flight that the fatal crash occurred. The Ecuadorean ecologist Eduardo Aspiazu was also killed. Parker's fiancee, Jacqueline Goerck, was among the survivors.
Many aspects of Parker's charisma were captured by the writer Don Stap in his book Parrot Without a Name. With his impish smile and a well- phrased wisecrack, Parker was always able to charm his way out of any situation that hinted of disagreement.
Parker was author or co-author of over 60 scientific papers and monographs, primarily on birds. He was also a co-author of the recently published Threatened Birds of the Americas, one of the 'Red Data Books' and which was published by the International Council for Bird Preservation. At the time of his death a number of other works were nearing completion, the most important of which is a volume on bird ecology in the American tropics and its implications for conservation, to be published by the University of Chicago Press as a project of CI. Among his publications were the first papers describing and giving names to two species and one sub-species of bird, all from Peru. Two previously unknown birds in turn were named after Parker: a sub-species of the Coppery Metaltail (a hummingbird), and a species of antbird, the Ash-throated Antwren, Herpsilochmus parkeri.