Thelonious Munk sits down for an alfresco meal at a wooden table. He eagerly takes a taco prepared with a nut flour tortilla, which he sniffs before having a few nibbles. He lingers a little after his meal before leaving. He rushes into a bush and through a tunnel – because he’s not checking out the latest vegan restaurant, but rather is a wild chipmunk.
He lives in writer Angela Hansberger’s backyard outside of Atlanta where, like many backyard creatures across the country, he’s been eating like a king at a squirrel table every day since April.
Squirrel tables have become one of the pandemic’s most eccentric trends. Resembling miniature picnic tables, they are usually made of cedar or pine and measure around 8 by 5 inches. People put them on fences or trees, or sometimes place them on the ground. Although they are called “squirrel tables,” people offer a selection of nuts and seeds for any backyard creature, whether it be a squirrel, chipmunk, or groundhog.
The trend seems to have started in March, when Rick Kalinowski, an unemployed plumber in Bryn Mawr, Pa., Posted a series of photos of a squirrel feeder to the “All About Squirrels” Facebook group. In a widely shared photo, a squirrel sits at the table attached to a fence and grabs peanuts with its tiny hands.
The sight of the animal doing something so human and special has captured the hearts of thousands. People who suddenly had more free time were excited about the prospect of having their own squirrel tables. There are hundreds of them for sale on Etsy, priced at $ 20 to $ 85.
Among the squirrel table lovers is Steph Moore, 40, a self-proclaimed designer from Walton, Ky. She and her three children were mesmerized by the squirrels running along their fence. Inspired by online videos, she made a table using a laser cutter and tied it to a tree.
Now the family leaves snacks for the two most-visiting squirrels. “They are very difficult. They know they are getting food, but they really only like when we take out the right nuts, ”she said, namely the nuts.
This new hobby surprised Ms. Moore. “I don’t find them cute… at least I didn’t,” she said, “I grew up terrified of rodents, and now I find them adorable.”
Squirrels were once nearly eradicated from cities because they were considered pests of crops or game, wrote Etienne Benson, associate professor of history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania, in a 2013 article. published in the Journal of American History.
But in the mid-1800s, cities like Philadelphia and Boston began reintroducing squirrels to public squares to “beautify and enliven the urban landscape at a time when American cities were expanding in geographic scope, population density, and size. cultural diversity, ”he writes.
It wasn’t until Frederick Law Olmsted designed city parks with trees that squirrels managed to find homes in those cities and eventually in the suburbs. Because they are clean enough and perceived as cute, they appealed to naturalists who felt they “contributed to a bucolic atmosphere,” Professor Benson wrote.
These days, squirrels are now a part of the landscape, mostly going unnoticed as they roam their day. They tend to avoid the nickname “vermin” as long as they stay out of people’s attics.
And since the pandemic confined people to their homes and gardens, the status of squirrels has increased. Ms Hansberger, 50, is a food and spirits writer who spent most of her days in town before it closed in mid-March. While living with her husband and two sons, the first days of quarantine were particularly isolating. “I don’t do the usual things anymore. I’m here every day in my house all day except for a grocery run or something, ”Ms. Hansberger said. “I arrived in a place that was quite dark and quite sad.”
That changed when a squirrel table, a handy uncle’s gift, arrived at her home in April. She placed it on a step in her yard, and a chipmunk was immediately attracted. She began to feed him (“He will do anything for a dab”). In no time, Thelonious Munk, as she called him, became as staple in the yard as the table itself.
She researched what chipmunks can and can’t eat, and started cooking small meals for him. Photos of Thelonius having dinner in an ever-changing setting have replaced the ones Ms Hansberger used to post restaurants on her Instagram feed.
Someday there might be a box on the table full of chipmunk safe “donuts” next to a miniature cup of coffee. Another day, Thelonius could sit in a ramen bar made of popsicle sticks by Mrs. Hansberger’s husband and drink a bowl of mushroom broth prepared in Mrs. Hansberger’s kitchen.
No detail is spared – the bar is even topped with scrapbooking bottles filled with spirits, and the bar stools are covered in scrap leather. “I lost a lot of work when Covid hit, and DIY and food making is a little meditative for me because of this silent process of doing something small,” Ms. Hansberger said.
Likewise, Maria Trezza, 56, an elementary school canteen aide who lives in Bolingbrook, Ill., Found friendship with her new resident squirrels, Lucy, Big Red and Big Red’s baby, Lil Red. Without a job since March, Ms Trezza asked her neighbor Rob Gibala, 47, to build her a squirrel table. A viral tweet from her son later, the two have started building a squirrel table business whose success baffles her.
“It’s just funny for me to see a squirrel sitting at a picnic table, eating,” Ms. Trezza said. “And I think people were locked in the house, nothing to do, and it just made them laugh.
In a time of human social isolation, this has also helped most of its customers drive from all over to take their tables to their patio and stay for a chat. “It makes me happy to see these people excited,” Ms. Trezza said.
Other table makers are more invested in craftsmanship. Justin LaRose, 41, of Long Beach, Calif., Is a skateboarder and furniture maker who puts a special thought into his squirrel tables. “I really wanted to put some realistic detail in it, which is if you blew it up, it would be a table,” LaRose said. “It wasn’t hard to do, especially because I was laughing all the time.” The result is a table that strikes despite its size, with multicolored streaks from several reused maple wood skateboards.
Some enthusiasts venture out of their course and into nature. Christopher Svee, 38, who works in the hospitality industry, and his girlfriend, Jena Garfield, 33, set up rainbow-colored tables that appear against the greenery in parks around St. Paul, Minnesota , in the hope of making the squirrels and people happy.
“It’s kind of our spin on random acts of kindness, like a random art act,” Ms. Garfield said. “It’s just something that’s in a public space, and it kind of brings joy to people during this crazy time that we’re all in. After driving to replenish squirrel feeders, she will often find that someone else has already filled them. “It’s like a social experience of sorts.”
Alas, this can have unintended consequences. Feeding wild animals can cause disease to spread among them and lead to species infighting, according to Alison Hermance, communications director for the nonprofit WildCare.
“Whenever you have a food source, you make a buffet and you can’t really decide who’s coming,” she says. “So you often have problems with people pulling bird feeders out and suddenly seeing rats appear in the yard because the seed falls to the ground.” Ms. Hermances said that proper cleaning of tables and picking up fallen food can prevent such problems.
And for Ms. Hansberger, the solace found in making Thelonius an almond flour pizza with a crushed raspberry sauce is well worth it. “I get these messages everyday from strangers telling me about everything they’ve been through all these months,” she said. “Watching this little chipmunk makes them smile or gives them some comfort, or something to look forward to. That’s enough.”