Birdist Rule #56: Figure Out Your Food Strategy While Birding

Are you a bring-it-from-home type of person, or do you enjoy grabbing your meals on the go?

Let us now discuss two of this life’s greatest pleasures: eating and birds.

I’m not talking about bird recipes, or whether or not you should eat birds, or coming home after a day of birding to cook a nice meal (though that sounds wonderful): I’m talking about eating on the road while looking for birds.

After your binoculars and a ride, food is the most important consideration when you’re headed out. What will you need? Where will you get it? How delicious will it be? All important questions. A slow day’s birding can be saved by a good meal, and a good day’s birding can be hampered by an empty stomach. So it’s important to think of these things ahead of time. Let’s get into it.

First off, you’ve got options. Lots of birders like to bring their own food with them from home. It’s the cheapest way to go, and it gives you the most control over the menu. You can make your own sandwich just the way you like it (cut mine into triangles, not rectangles, thank you very much). You can make sure you’ve got exactly as many brownies as you want. You can bring that weird healthy smoothie you like with the chunks of stuff and the whey powder. Enjoy that.  

Of course, food brought from home can really be broken up into two subgroups: homemade food and packaged food. I don't do either. I don’t like to bring any packaged food with me, even granola bars. Apologies in advance if I singe your eyebrows when you read this hot take, but granola bars are gross. They all taste like bark. Instead of snacking, I prefer to just stuff myself with food and carry a fully belly over to the next meal, like a camel storing water for a long trek.

I also never make my own food because I'm terrible in the kichen and don’t like knowing that I have something gross waiting for me in the car. Plenty of other birders make their own meals, though. I asked my Twitter followers about eating while birding, and some of them shared their homemade delights.

Homemade jerky! Sounds awesome, and sorta intimidating. 

Oh man, my mouth is watering thinking about homemade pimiento cheese.

Lots of people are good at making PB&Js, apparently. I’m not.

I am going to go out on a limb and say that this is the first person to eat salad in a canoe. Canoe salad! Good for you, pal.

I don’t even know what this is.

Moving on. Not bringing anything with you means you’ve got to get food on the road. Now we’re in my wheelhouse.

I want to start with the controversial stuff: fast food. I almost never eat fast food when I’m not birding, but I eat it more than I’d like to admit when I am. Breakfast, mostly. Fast food places are sometimes the only convenient places open early in the morning when you’re hungry and oh my goodness do you need some coffee. Other times they’re just the only restaurants around, and you don’t want to scan through a million Yelp reviews.

Plus, I can’t lie: Fast food can be delicious. I am a devotee of McDonald’s coffee and breakfast burritos, and I will slather the latter with that not-actually-hot hot sauce. In Maine, Dunkin' Donuts was the morning rule, especially when my friend Doug had a gift card from his parents that they accidentally loaded up a lot more money on than they realized. We ate like kings. (Please do not send this column to Doug’s parents.) 

Everyone has a favorite spot. Some are regional, like these two apparently beloved chains that I’ve never heard of:

If there's one thing you take from this column today, it's this: There’s no shame in the occasional birding fast food, so don’t sweat it.

Also controversial is gas station food. Some people would rather go hungry than eat food from a gas station, but I take a different view: that gas stations are the last bastion of truly regional cuisine. The no-frills food in gas stations around the country is some of the last honest food in America—unpretentious, free from marketing hype, and catered to locals. It’s rarely good for you, but it's always interesting. In Maine, I love digging “red snapper” hot dogs out of their metal crate and tossing them into a steamed bun. In Mississippi, it was sausage biscuits. In Louisiana, I had gas station jambalaya that, no joke, was better than anything I ever bought at a restaurant. In Texas, the fresh-made tortillas at the Laredo Taco Companies in the Lower Rio Grande Valley gas stations were so good that we ate there multiple times per day. I’m no culinary anthropologist, but if you want to experience a region’s true food, buy it from a gas station.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are the fancy gas stations—the places that have risen in stature to become considered nearly gourmet. Here on the East Coast, people treat Sheetz and Wawa like they’ve got Michelin stars. More Twitter birders than I expected frequent both.  

Here’s two:

Apparently WaWa has good cookies, too. 

Subway is also great if you're on the go. Not sure about Casey’s gas station pizza, but I'd give it a try! 

Okay, I love gas stations, but even I’m not ready to say that 7-11 has “awesome food.”

Stay away from this guy.

Most delicious of all, though, are local restaurants. I'm constantly searching out good Mexican lunch spots; it’s a byproduct of growing up in a state with nothing to offer but a single Taco Bell in the Maine Mall food court. I’ll try any Mexican food place I can find on the road—the more hole-in-the-wall the better. It’s cheap, it’s delicious, and it tastes nothing like Taco Bell.

Stopping at local restaurants can help with your birding, too. On one trip, my friend Jake and I stopped for lunch at the famous Portal Cafe in Portal, Arizona, and happened to be seated next to two birding guides. Jake and I did our best to pretend we were talking to each other while we were actually eavesdropping on the pros, trying to hear what good birds were around. We all ended up in conversation, and they gave us some excellent tips on where a Mountain Pygmy-Owl had been hanging out! Score. 

Plus, of course, there’s this:

Good point! Letting the owners know you’re a birder will help spread the word that birding means business. Just make sure not to let your binoculars dangle into your soup.

Birds are never guaranteed to be where they’re supposed to be. But if you plan ahead and are flexible with your choices, you can at least make sure that you'll have a good meal on the road. And on one final note, I know my highly scientific Twitter survey missed plenty of people and ideas, so if you've got more food recommendations or favorite recipes, please share them below!