Bird Watcher's General Store

That Quail, Robert - 12/21/07


Dear Bird Folks,

I've just returned from a visit to Cape Cod. I stopped at your shop with a question but neither of the two young saleswomen could answer it for me. I'd like to know where in Orleans did Margaret Stanger, the author of That Quail Robert, live? Many thanks.

- John, Upstate NY

I must confess, John,

Before I answer your question I have a confession to make. The part where you mention that you had "just returned from a visit to Cape Cod," isn't exactly true and I need to apologize for that. You sent me that question back in the fall of 2006. Thus you have been in Upstate NY for over a year and you are still waiting for the answer to your rather simple question. The problem wasn't finding out where Margaret Stanger lived. I know just where she lived. Her old house isn't far from mine. The problem was finding the time to go over there to get the exact street number. I'm a busy guy. I have laundry to fold and coupons to clip. I can't be expected to make that long mile and a half journey over to the next neighborhood without at least a year's advance notice. I mean, really, my laundry isn't going to fold itself.

Margaret Stanger's book, That Quail Robert, is without a doubt the most important 20th century literary work to come out of North America, or at least East Orleans. The regional significance of her work can't be underestimated. Throughout history there have been several icons who have drawn the world's attention to the location of their humble beginnings. Tupelo, Mississippi has Elvis; Liverpool, England has the Beatles. And Cape Cod, Massachusetts has a tiny quail named Robert. I'm sure there are those who will argue that JFK brought more attention to Cape Cod than Robert did, but I don't see it. Robert, the quail, had an entire book written about him. Has anyone ever written a book about JFK? No, right? See.

Just in case there is someone out there who has yet to read That Quail Robert, let me fill you in on the back-story. Robert was born in the summer of 1962. This was a time when Bobwhites were still regularly found on Cape Cod. The adult quail built their nest on the edge of a yard that belonged to a family named Kienzle. This pair of birds sure picked the right yard because the Kienzles loved birds, which was kind of unusual in 1962. Back then people were more focused on trying to figure out how to use a hula-hoop, than they were in watching birds.

Like many ducks, quail are born ready to go. The entire brood, usually about fourteen eggs, hatches out and leaves the nest all on the same day. And that's exactly what happened to Robert's brothers and sisters. The next day the Kienzles found the abandoned nest and an orphaned egg. They brought the egg into their kitchen, ran it under cold water, doused it with bug spray, washed it in dish detergent and left it on the counter as a decoration. Then, three days after being deserted by his parents and treated with insecticide and detergent, baby Robert chipped his way out of the "decoration."

For the next three years Robert was a local and a national star. Newspapers ran stories about a wild quail that was living the life of a family pet in Orleans. NBC invited Robert to New York to appear on a game show. Thousands of people came from all over to see the charming quail that met guests at the door, led them to the sitting room and softly chirped as he sat on their shoulders. In addition to his warm personality, this wild quail was also housebroken, and was so self-confident that he didn't mind being called Robert, even after he started laying eggs, which meant "Robert" was probably "Roberta." Ya think?

The story of Robert began forty-five years ago, this past summer. Unfortunately, the Kienzles are no longer with us. Margaret Stanger, the Kienzle's friend, neighbor, quail baby-sitter, and author of That Quail Robert, passed away in 1980. However, Cathy Baldwin, the book's illustrator, is very much alive, still living in Orleans and is not one of the Baldwin brothers. Cathy has wonderful stories about meeting and spending time with Robert. She was chosen as the book's illustrator after a young Cathy painted a watercolor of Robert and sent it to him for his birthday. Could this story get any sweeter?

The house where Margaret Stanger lived and wrote, and where Robert stayed when his foster parents, the Kienzles, were away in Europe, is located at 47 Monument Road, in Orleans. It's a private home but there is a plaque on the road that tells of the avian and literary history that took place there.

Even though you can't go into Margaret Stanger's former house, John, you certainly can have your picture taken in front of it. Ms. Stanger's house is a typical Cape Cod house, built at a time when we had lots of quail, hula-hoops were new, and a typical Cape Cod house didn't have six stories and fifty-five rooms.



Artwork by Catherine Clark


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