Thelonious Munk sits down at a wooden table for an al fresco meal. He eagerly picks up a taco with a walnut flour tortilla that he sniffs before grabbing a few nibbles. He lingers a bit after eating before leaving. He scurries into a bush and through a tunnel – because he isn’t visiting the newest vegan restaurant, but a wild chipmunk.
He lives on the farm of the writer Angela Hansberger outside of Atlanta, where like many backyard dwellers around the country he has been eating like a king at a squirrel table every day since April.
Squirrel tables have emerged as one of the bizarre trends of the pandemic. They resemble miniature picnic tables, usually made of cedar or pine, and measure around 8 “by 5”. People attach them to fences or trees, or sometimes place them on the ground. Although people are called “squirrel tables,” they lay out an assortment of nuts and seeds for every backyard creature, be it a squirrel, chipmunk, or groundhog.
The trend appears to have started in March when Rick Kalinowski, an unemployed plumber in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, posted a series of pictures of a squirrel feeder on the All About Squirrels Facebook group. In one popular image, a squirrel is sitting at a table tied to a fence, reaching for peanuts with its tiny hands.
The sight of the animal doing something so human and special captured the hearts of thousands. People who suddenly had more time were thrilled at the prospect of having their own squirrel tables. There are hundreds for sale on Etsy, priced anywhere from $ 20 to $ 85.
Among the squirrel table enthusiasts is Steph Moore, 40, a self-described maker based in Walton, Ky. She and her three children were fascinated by the squirrels running along their fence. Inspired by online videos, she made a table with a laser cutter and attached it to a tree.
Now the family is leaving snacks for the two squirrels that visit the most. “You are very picky. They know they are getting food, but they really only like it when we bring out the good nuts, ”she said, namely walnuts.
This new hobby surprised Ms. Moore. “I don’t think they’re cute … at least not,” she said, “I grew up scared of rodents, and now I find them adorable.”
Squirrels were once almost wiped out from cities because they were viewed as crop pests or game. Etienne Benson, Associate Professor of History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in a 2013 article published in the Journal of American History.
In the mid-19th century, cities such as Philadelphia and Boston began reintroducing squirrels to public places in an attempt to “beautify and revitalize the urban landscape at a time when American cities were growing in geography, population density, and cultural diversity,” he wrote.
It was not until Frederick Law Olmsted designed city parks with trees that squirrels successfully found a home in such cities and ultimately in suburbs. Because they are fairly clean and perceived to be cute, they appealed to naturalists who felt they were “adding to a bucolic atmosphere,” wrote Professor Benson.
These days, squirrels are part of the landscape and mostly go unnoticed as they scurry through their day. They tend to avoid the nickname “vermin” as long as they are not in people’s attics.
And since the pandemic confined people to their homes and backyards, the status of squirrels has risen. Ms. Hansberger, 50, is a food and liquor writer who spent most of the days in town before it closed in mid-March. While she lives with her husband and two sons, the first few days of quarantine were particularly isolating. “I don’t do the normal things anymore. I’m in my house all day every day, except for a grocery run or something, ”said Ms. Hansberger. “I’ve come to a pretty dark, pretty sad place.”
That changed when a squirrel table, a gift from a handy uncle, arrived at her home in April. She put it on a step in her garden and immediately a chipmunk was attracted to it. She started to feed him. (“He’ll do anything for a hazelnut.”) It wasn’t long before Thelonious Munk, as she called him, became a fixture in the yard like the table itself.
She researched what chipmunks can and can’t eat and began preparing tiny meals for him. Photos of Thelonius dining in an ever-changing decor have replaced those Ms. Hansberger restaurants posted with on her Instagram feed.
One day, next to a miniature coffee cup, there could be a box of chipmunk-safe “donuts” on the table. Another day, Thelonius might be sitting at a ramen bar made from popsicles by Mrs. Hansberger’s husband sipping a bowl of mushroom broth made in Mrs. Hansberger’s kitchen.
No detail is spared: the bar is even filled with spirits bottles and the bar stools are covered with old leather. “I lost a lot of work when Covid hit, and crafting and preparing the food is a kind of meditation for me because of the calm process of doing something small,” Ms. Hansberger said.
Similarly, Maria Trezza, 56, an elementary school assistant who lives in Bolingbrook, Illinois, has made friends with her new resident squirrel Lucy, Big Red, and Big Red’s baby Lil Red. Ms. Trezza had been unemployed since March and asked her neighbor Rob Gibala (47) to build her a squirrel table. A viral tweet from their son later, the two began building a squirrel table business, the success of which astounded them.
“It’s just fun for me to see a squirrel sitting at a picnic table and eating,” said Ms. Trezza. “And I think people were locked in the house with nothing to do, and it just kind of made them laugh.”
In an era of human social isolation, it has also helped most of their customers drive from everywhere to pick up their tables from their patio and chat. “I am pleased to see these people excited,” said Ms. Trezza.
Other table makers invest more in the craft. Justin LaRose, 41, based in Long Beach, California, is a skateboarder and furniture maker who pays special attention to their squirrel tables. “I really wanted to add realistic detail that would make it look like a table when blown up,” said LaRose. “It wasn’t difficult to do, especially because I was laughing all the time.” The result is a table that stands out despite its size and features multi-colored stripes from several reused maple skateboards.
Some enthusiasts venture out of their courtyards and into nature. Christopher Svee, 38, who works in the hospitality industry, and his girlfriend Jena Garfield, 33, set up rainbow-colored tables that pop against the green in parks around St. Paul, Minnesota, in hopes of keeping both squirrels and people happy close.
“It’s kind of a hub for random acts of kindness, like random acts,” Ms. Garfield said. “It’s just something that is out in a public area and it makes people happy in this crazy time we are all in.” After she has driven to refill the squirrel feeders, she will often find that someone else has already refilled them. “In a way, it’s like a social experiment.”
Unfortunately, it can have unintended consequences. Feeding wild animals can cause disease to spread among them and lead to wildlife struggles, according to Alison Hermance, communications director for the nonprofit animal rescue organization WildCare.
“Whenever you have a source of food, you put a buffet out and really can’t decide who’s coming,” she said. “So you often have problems with people who have birdseed and suddenly have rats in the yard because the seeds fall to the ground.” Ms. Hermances said that properly cleaning the tables and picking up dropped food can prevent such problems.
And for Mrs. Hansberger, the consolation of turning Thelonius into an almond flour pizza with a crushed raspberry sauce is well worth the risk. “I get these messages every day from strangers telling me all the things they’ve been through for all these months,” she said. “Looking at this little chipmunk will make them smile or bring them some comfort or something to look forward to. That’s enough.”