One of Africa’s most influential conservationists and our top ornithologist has died at the age of 57. Professor Phil Hockey joined the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology in the same year I was born (1979) and became the Director in 2008. He had an honours degree from Edinburgh and obtained his PhD at the University of Cape Town in 1983. Phil became quite famous for his ground-breaking work on the African Black Oystercatchers and the interactions of coastal waders with food resources. Prof Hockey spotted almost 900 birds in southern Africa and his diverse interests saw him study migrations, extinction threats, evolution, climate change, nesting, food, management, trade and much else. He was also not scared to champion species like the oystercatcher, Cape parrot, Ludwig’s bustard, African penguin, ground hornbill and many others that needed immediate help. His ongoing interest in shorebirds took him to tropical Africa and islands in the Indian Ocean, South America, the Canary Islands, and the Middle East…
Phil’s eyes always lit up when he talked about the Percy FitzPatrick Institute. Even though he did not like public speaking, he was a master of captivating minds young and old and applying them to problems facing the rarest and most distressed birds in South Africa. As a result the “Fitztitute” always received the best honours students from around the South Africa and the world, educating some of the top conservationists in Africa. The Conservation Biology Masters Program is now recognized as one of the best in the world with many NGOs encouraging job applicants to take the course. Prof Peter Ryan leads the program and, I am sure, will continue to churn out future conservation leaders. We at the Fitztitute must now work even harder to stay involved, publish in the best academic journals in the world, and let our passion for birds come out. Phil’s secret army of bird conservationists will never forget the magic that he brought to this world…
Dr Rob Little, the manager of the Centre of Excellence at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology at UCT, said in a statement to local newspapers: “Professor Hockey’s impact and leadership in ornithology has been exemplary, and is appreciated by a wide range of the ornithological sector. He will be remembered for his vast contribution to avian literature, both scientific and popular. He touched the hearts and lives of many people, from deeply insightful discussions about birds to warm interactions on life itself.”
Vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, Dr Max Price, said in a tribute to Phil: “To the thousands of students who have passed through his classes, Professor Hockey was guru, kind father-figure, field supervisor and teacher. He was a much-loved member of UCT.”
Mark Anderson, CEO of BirdLife South Africa, shared his condolences online: “We have lost a man who made an enormous contribution to ornithology, birding, bird conservation, training of students, and so much more. Phil was a great supporter of BirdLife South Africa, and has given me an amazing amount of personal support in my four years at BirdLife South Africa. The world will be a much poorer place without Phil.”
Words cannot describe the way Phil’s passing has made me feel. I was meant to visit with him over the weekend, but but got tied up in Cape Parrot Project meetings. This will be one of my biggest regrets. I cried yesterday and a few weeks ago after seeing Phil at a gathering of the staff and students of the Institute. Phil revolutionized the way I look at ornithological study and, most importantly, taught me to believe in myself. He shrugged off academic politics as an unnecessary hinderance and always focussed on what was important. We wouldn’t have been able to develop a fledgling Wild Bird Trust and Cape Parrot Project without Phil’s unflinching support and guidance. We were in the process of making him a trustee, but were stalled by his long fight with cancer. I felt like giving up everything in 2011, but Phil made it clear that I had a home at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute. This gave me the strength to commit to bird conservation and a life in academia. We will never see another genius ornithologist that can party has hard as Phil! His physical stamina in the field was legendary and passion for birds unsurpassed. Every time I see an oystercatcher I think of Phil and always will. I think many people will for many years to come. It was an honor and a privilege to work with Prof Phil Hockey and will always endeavor to achieve what would have Phil expected us to achieve.
Aside from his world renown academic research, Phil published many semi-popular articles and books and presented hundreds of public lectures. He is a co-author of the best-selling regional field guide, ‘Sasol Birds of Southern Africa‘ and co-editor, along with Richard Dean and Peter Ryan, of the the Seventh Edition of ‘Roberts Birds of Southern Africa‘. Both publications form the backbone of birdwatching in southern Africa. Both bird books will be updated in coming years and continue fostering a passion for ornithology in the next generation.
To everyone that knew or worked with Phil, it is now your responsibility to work a little harder to make sure that his work at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute is continued. All our thoughts are with Samantha, Phil’s wife, and their families.
Eyes to the sky because Phil is certainly flying somewhere high above the clouds!