Getting Ready for Hunting Season: Easy upland game bird care when you have no time
Last week I posted tricks for getting big game in the freezer quickly. This week, it’s the feathered game into-the-freezer quick. And there is more than one trick.
Upland Game Bird Care: Let’s start with the tools that help. There are three:
- Re-sealable freezer baggies, both sandwich and gallon-sized.
- A bird-sized gut hook: not to be confused with the big game gut hook.
Now the tricks.
The Scientific Procrastinator’s Club Technique:
I learned this one at a wildlife fundraiser dinner (probably Pheasants Forever) from a dentist. He spent a lot of time hunting upland birds and liked to pluck them so he’d have whole birds to roast or grill. But that takes time and he had a busy practice.
After a day in the field, he said, he often lacks time to pluck the birds so he freezes them (after drawing and rinsing them), doves, ruffed grouse, Huns, etc first in small bags, then collected by species in larger bags, and blue and sage grouse, pheasants individually in gallon bags—while still in the feather. Then over the next week or two, as time allows, he pulls out as many birds as he has time to pluck. Instead of taking the time to thaw them in the fridge (24-48 hours depending on the size of the bird) he dips one or two at a time in a pot of not-quite-boiling water (about 180F) for 1 ½ to 2 minutes. The goal is to thaw the skin—and the skin only. Then he sets the birds on newspapers until they’re just cool enough to handle (about 2-3 minutes more) and starts plucking. When he’s done, he double wraps the birds (first in plastic wrap, then into resealable plastic bags) and pops them back in the freezer, still 85-90% frozen.
My generous dinner companion lit up when I suggested he could have put those birds in the bottom of the fridge to age for 5-7 days, then pluck them. But as we both realized, that would mean he’d only traded one busy hunting weekend for the next. At our house it works, for two reasons.
First, I’m not an avid upland hunter, nor am I a great wingshot.
Second, while John is an avid bird hunter, he’s been too busy writing to do more than a prime time hunt*: from season opener to closing, he hunts the last 1 to 2 hours of the day and, if he gets lucky, he might have 2 birds. Unfortunately he doesn’t get even moderately luck every day.
Third, when he’s done for the day, he walks in the door and drops the birds in the sink. Un-drawn. Un-rinsed. Un-messed-with, because he knows that as fast as he is at gutting big game, I’m faster (and fussy) with birds.
Writing the Upland Game Bird Cookery book did that. We travelled all over, from pheasants and Hungarians, to ruffed and blues, prairie chickens, sage and sharptail grouse, quail, woodcock and turkeys. I plucked almost every bird we took, and those our friends took, begging and borrowing birds to have enough ‘pretty’ ones for the photos in the book. In UP, I sat in the kitchen over a paper grocery bag plucking all the woodcock and grouse we’d taken in the course of several days’ hunting, while in the doorway, unknown to me, the other hunters were taking bets about when I’d drop the first feather on the floor. I didn’t, and I got them all done that evening. So John leaves the birds in the sink and walks away with a cold beer. Just for the record, the guys in UP offered to help, but John warned them off. And I was just fine with that. As a reward they game me all their woodcock and their favorite woodcock recipe. It’s on page 100, Woodcock Want-Nots. I’m pretty sure the Grilled Woodcocks with Jack Daniels Barbecue Sauce was my creation, but I couldn’t have played with the woodcock flavors as much without the UP guys’ generosity.
So what about the gut hook?
I still like to have some whole birds in the freezer, so first thing I do is poke around those birds lying in the sink and feel for where the damage is: if the breast is fairly undamaged and the wings and leg joints are intact, I pluck them. Damaged birds get gutted, rinsed, and parted out quickly, then refrigerated. The ones I’m leaving whole then get drawn and rinsed. That’s where that bird gut hook comes in.
Refrigerators and freezers dehydrate food. All food, including meat. And game birds have very little fat, so when you cook them, there’s no saving grace of fat melting and basting the meat—as with commercially raised chickens and beef. Part two of that is as soon as you open the bird, it starts drying, and the larger the cut, the faster the drying. But you need to make a cut and draw the guts.
When John makes that first cut, he starts at the vent and cuts way up into the skin covering the breast, so he can draw the guts with his fingers. I cut down from the vent to the spine, then insert the gut hook, twist it to hook the intestines, and gently pull. When I feel resistance, I’ll insert the hook again, twist and repeat the gentle pull. You might need to make a small sideways–not up into the breast–cut to poke the hook into and pull out the gizzard, but the rest of the organs are much smaller. Not to mention that it’s easier to pull that big gizzard out with the hook since you’re not adding the thickness of a finger or two to the width of the passage you need to clear.
Of course my fingers are smaller than John’s, but the bird gut hook is even smaller than that.
The two best times to pluck wild game birds:
- Right after the bird hits the ground.
- The second best time is after aging long enough that the feathers pull easily. That is also a sign that the meat is as tender as you can make it. For young birds, 5-7 days; for trophies as long as 10 days. FYI: when testing if the bird’s ready to pluck, test feathers from the back, not the breast.
My bet is that our dentist friend is now combining both those tricks: letting the birds age in the feather—in the fridge–until they can easily be plucked, then double-bagging and freezing until he has more time. He’s probably bought a bird sized gut hook as well.
Making a small gutting cut, pressing the feathers back down over the opening, plus double-bagging the birds (especially grouping smaller birds by species) for the aging and freezing steps, are great protection from the ravages of dry air and freezing temperatures. Even if you don’t plan to eventually pluck the birds, keeping game birds organized and as moist as possible is an asset to the cook, as well as the Pheasant Parmigiano.
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