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“Tips for Field Dressing Game Birds, Part 1″

Bird hunting season is upon us and there’s nothing I like more than a wild bird at the dinner table, especially during the holidays. Preparing wild birds after the hunt can sometimes be tricky, so here are a few of my handy tips on dressing and preparing wild birds for the table.

In the field…

Field treatment of game birds is crucial, especially if you plan to age them. Get the birds out of the game pocket as soon as possible, and keep them separate, cool, and dry. Hang them by the neck or feet with a game strap in a cold but not freezing place. If the weather is very warm, pluck the birds around the area where you gut them, then remove the intestines. Try to avoid this, however, since birds are best aged with the intestines in tact. Instead, have an ice chest ready with a shelf arranged on top, and lay the birds on top until you get home.

On aging…

Voltaire once said that, “The bird of the Phasis is a dish for the gods.” Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote that, “Above all feathered game should come the pheasant, but once again few mortal men know how to present it best. A pheasant eaten within a week after its death is more worthless than a pullet, because its real merit comes in its heightening flavor.”

The beautiful taste of a well-aged animal came by virtue of necessity. Refrigeration wasn’t available until the 20th century, which meant that people learned to enjoy game birds whose breast meat was aged until green. But as my friend, the British gamekeeper once pointed out, people don’t like their food “high” anymore. Their taste buds are no longer suited to it since the advent of refrigeration.
Certain game birds today, however, when relatively undamaged by shot, left in their feathers with intestines in tact, and aged for a period of time, are much better tasting. Age the meat, hanging whole by the neck with the feathers and skin on and the guts in tact at a temperature in the range of 50-55 degrees F. Pheasants are best if eaten as soon as the aging is completed.

3-4 days is best for a smaller bird, 5-7 days for a larger/older one. If the bird is damaged, pluck and gut it and place it on a wire rack over a pan in the refrigerator, covered in a wet cloth to prevent drying. My book, “Girl Hunterhas a great chart on aging game by animal and goes into much more detail.

On plucking a bird…

Plucking a bird is time consuming, the most time consuming part of the process. But there are few things more elegant on a dinner table than a whole bird. You have to do it a few feathers at a time, plucking with one hand while using the other hand to secure the skin, in order to prevent it from tearing. For ducks that you aren’t planning to age, I find it is most easily done within an hour of when they are killed, or while you are sitting and waiting for more in the duck blind. Mechanical pluckers rarely work, especially with thin-skinned birds like the pheasant. Dunking the bird in scalding water (wet-plucking) works but it will semi-cook the skin.

I prefer dry plucking, especially because I age my birds. This simply means, start plucking. If you need extra assistance for the fine feathers, dipping the bird in paraffin wax at the end and peeling the wax off works best. So does using a torch to singe the remaining down. The larger feathers can be saved for fly-fishing or decorating. You should only grab a few feathers at a time and be particularly gentle around the areas with loose skin (neck and base of the wing), as they will tear most easily. Quill feathers are the most difficult to remove without tearing the skin. They should be plucked one at a time with a quick snap of the wrist, while holding the skin down with the other hand. Sometimes tweezers are helpful.

In Part 2, I’ll share the steps I take for skinning, breasting, butchering and trussing game birds. In the meantime, do you have any handy tips to share?

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  1. Perfect timing. I’m going to be hunting prairie chickens in the Ft. Pierre National Grasslands this weekend and the temperature on Saturday is supposed to get up to 91 F. I’ll be ready to treat those birds right, at least not by letting them fly away freely that is.

    • Niiiice. Let us know how it goes!

      • The hunt success was moderate (a couple did escape freely though), but I did have 3 birds to age. I’ll shoot you a couple of photos by e-mail. Ice in the cooler worked well and I let it completely melt before adding more. I had them on ice for 4.5 days and they did not smell at all. Cleaning was in some ways easier and less mess than doing it soon after harvest. I like to keep either a wing or the head intact while cleaning for something to hold onto.

  2. I am game to try this… again… The first time I attempted to age my birds the smell really turned me off, and we ended up pitching them. It was only a couple of days and the temperatures should have been fine as it was relatively cool. Is there typically a “smell” at the end of the aging process? I think that as I remember the breasts had a little color to them as well. Just got nervous about getting sick!

    • What was the temperature and how long was it for? Temperature is key. The smell shouldn’t be strong. The insides should actually smell more mild.

      • The problem I think is controlling the temperature. I hung it in the garage and it was fall in South Dakota so I am thinking we would have had lows in the 40s and highs in the 50s or 60s. So maybe it was a bit warm???

        I would like to convert an old refrigerator into a spot where I can hang and age meat in a controlled environment. I could hang birds as well as venison for aging. Does the 50-55 temperature range hold true for aging venison too?

        • I have a really good aging chart for aging animals in my book Girl Hunter, which you can get at the library or any book seller. It varies slightly by animal. You’re right the 60s will be a bit too high.

          • Recoil Rob says:

            If I get a bird that catches the magic pellet (one to the head that damages no meat) or a “gourmet bird” that a dog will actually run down before it flies, I will take the time to properly pluck a pheasant, usually between 20-30 minutes to do it right, and save it for serving whole. Look up Roast pheasant with port (Faisán al modo de Alcántara) from The Foods & Wines of Spain by Penelope Casas .

            For all other birds taken I pluck the legs and thighs as soon as possible (sometimes when hunting alone I will do it as soon as the bird is dead, before continuing the hunt) since the skin in that area is rather thick and does not tear easily.
            When I get home I remove the leg/thigh and then skin and remove the breast meat.
            Breast are usually cooked in some kind of saute w/sauce or fried and remain moist. The leg/thigh pieces are saved up until i have a couple dozen and then I make pheasant confit with duck fat from Hudson Valley Fois Gras. The confited (?) legs freeze wonderfully and once defrosted take but a minute or two in a hot pan to crisp up for whatever use you wish, confit on salad, rillettes, eating plain. Last week I made a pizza with roasted potato, fresh thyme, fresh buffalo mozzarella and pheasant confit.

          • Wow, my mouth is watering, thank you for sharing your tips with us!

  3. Should you eat duck if it’s green when plucking?

    • Uh… I don’t think so, unless you’re feeling very 14th century French… and like that “high” flavor of game that the British enjoyed.