Mid-morning, Chris Robbins parks his car at a small neighborhood park in Fort Walton Beach and gets out with a bulging bag of shelled peanuts in his hand.
The animals know him, Robbins said. They even know his car.
Unnoticed by the other park users, squirrels start to mobilize, scuffling through the pine stray and dried leaves on their way to particular trees. A blue jay swoops in, loudly announcing Robbins’ presence, and settles in a tree nearby.
As often as weather permits, the Fort Walton Beach man is at this park, making his way around the quarter-mile track dropping peanuts in crooks of trees and on the park benches.
He’s not sure exactly why he started bringing peanuts on his morning walk, but it’s kept him coming back.
“When you know that there are all the little squirrels waiting for peanuts, it makes it harder just to say, ‘I’m not going to walk today,’” he said. “It’s motivation.”
And, he adds, he feels like the squirrels are happy to see him.
“I’m sure they are,” he said. “Because they’re going to get fed.”
Each squirrel has its own personality, and he has come to recognize them, to know which tree they’ll follow him to.
It started with him carrying a handful of peanuts and has progressed to a regular order on Amazon for two 5-pound bags of unsalted peanuts each month. The first thing a squirrel does is lick the shells to mark them, he said.
Robbins also briefly runs the spigot in the park to create a puddle on the sidewalk. Squirrels get thirsty and, depending on the time of year, may have trouble finding moist food like berries.
At the park, Robbins is popular, counting as many as 19 squirrels following him as he makes his way.
“At certain times of day, it’s almost like a little prayer circle,” he said. “They’ll get in a circle early in the morning and it’s like they’re planning their day and then they’ll scatter through the park to look for peanuts.”
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