Many bird hunters have developed some bad habits. One of the worst is stuffing doves or pheasants into a rubber-lined game pocket and leaving them there to “cook,” and perhaps spoil, by the end of the day. Other hunters might field dress a bird, let it hang for a couple of days, then try to dry-pluck it. The usual result is that pieces of skin are torn away and the bird is a mess.
Don’t waste good meat. Here’s some advice from a few experienced hunters and shooting-preserve operators who have cleaned literally thousands of pheasants and other game birds. These experts agree on the right way to handle a bird in the field.
1 FIELD DRESS ASAP
A bird should be field dressed soon after it is shot, particularly in warm weather. Field dressing is a simple operation. First, lay the bird on its back and pull the feathers off from below the breastbone to the anal opening, clearing the area for the first cut. Make the cut from the soft area below the breastbone down to the anal opening, being careful not to puncture the intestine. Reach in and take out the viscera, pulling downward toward the anal opening. Then remove the windpipe and crop.
2 GET RID OF THE BLOOD
During warm weather, pack the empty cavity with dry grass and then press the sides of the opening tightly together. The grass will absorb the blood and will keep insects from entering the cavity. In cold weather, don’t bother. Leave the cavity open and the meat will cool, free of bugs. You can expedite the cooling by placing snow in the cavity. Both dry grass and snow can also be used on furred small game such as rabbits and squirrels.
3 KEEP AIR CIRCULATING
Unless the outside temperature is very cold, try to avoid carrying birds in a lined game pocket, where minimal cooling will take place. It’s far better to hang the birds from your belt or a sling, exposing them to the air.
4 SKINNING ISN’T SO BAD
Many hunters believe it’s a crime to skin a grouse or pheasant, but it’s really a matter of preference. One rationale for skinning rather than plucking a bird is that the hunter might not be in a situation where taking the time to remove all the feathers is feasible.
You can easily pluck a bird immediately after it is shot, when the body is warm. The feathers will pull out with little trouble, and the skin will not tear. Granted, some hunters dislike stopping a hunt after each kill to pluck a bird. Whether you skin a bird or pluck it in the field, place it in a zip-top bag so that the bare skin isn’t exposed to dirt and bacteria.
5 NOT TOO HOT, NOT TOO COLD
Once its body has cooled, plucking a pheasant will most likely tear it apart. If you want to pluck a cooled bird, first dip it in hot water (180 degrees exactly). If the water is cooler or hotter than 180 degrees, the skin will tear. It’s hard to maintain the correct water temperature, so this method isn’t recommended. If you plan to pluck pheasants, do it in the field soon after the birds are in the bag.
6 HANGING HELPS TENDERIZE
If you want to tenderize mature cock pheasants, hang the field-dressed birds in a cool, dry place for a couple of days before skinning them.
Don’t expect any dramatic improvement in the taste. You won’t be able to detect much difference between birds skinned in the field and those skinned a few days later.
How to Skin a Bird
1. Slit the skin at the end of the breastbone lengthwise, keeping the cutting edge along the center of the breastbone.
2. Peel the skin away from the breast, down to the legs and up to the neck. Work the skin over each thigh and upper leg, stopping when you reach the first leg joint.
3. At this point, bend each leg backward until the joint cracks.
4. Remove the head and the feet with a knife.
5. Peel the skin away from the rest of the body. Then take each wing and bend it backward at the first joint until it cracks. Use a knife or shears to cut off the wing tips.
6. Finally, cut off the tail at its base.