Vin T. Sparano, as excerpted from Complete Outdoors Encyclopedia: Camping, Fishing, Hunting, Boating, Wilderness Survival, First Aid
Many pheasants, grouse, chukars, and other game birds are ruined between the time of the kill and the time they reach the table. Some hunters will put a bird into a hot, rubber-lined game pocket, leaving it there to “cook” and perhaps spoil by the day’s end.
Other hunters may field dress a bird, let it hang a couple of days, and then try to pluck it. The usual result is that pieces of the skin are torn away and the bird is a big mess.
Here’s some sound advice from more than a few shooting-preserve operators who have literally cleaned thousands of pheasants and other game birds. These experts agree on the right way to handle a bird in the field.
Obviously, a pheasant 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. Make this cut carefully so that no organs are cut or broken, which can taint the meat. First, cut the skin, and then cut through the meat. Reach in and take out the viscera, pulling down toward the anal opening. Now, remove the windpipe and crop.
During warm weather, pack the empty cavity with dry grass and then press the sides of the opening tightly together. The grass will absorb blood in the cavity and will keep insects from entering it. This is not necessary in cold weather, when you can leave the cavity open and let the meat cool, free of insects. You can expedite cooling in winter by placing some snow in the body cavity. Both dry grass and snow can also be used with equal effectiveness on furred small game, such as rabbits and squirrels.
Many hunters believe it is a crime to skin a bird, but some prefer to skin pheasants. One reason for skinning is because of the critical conditions necessary for effective plucking. You can easily pluck a bird immediately after it is shot and the body is warm. The feathers will pull out with little trouble, and the skin will not tear. But some hunters dislike stopping a hunt after each kill so that you can pluck a bird. Also, once a bird is plucked in the field, the bare skin is exposed to dirt and bacteria.
Once the body has cooled, a pheasant cannot be dry plucked without being torn up. It must be dipped in hot water (180°F). If the water is cooler or warmer than 180°F, the skin will tear. Because of the difficulty in maintaining the correct water temperature, this method isn’t recommended. If you plan to pluck pheasants, though, remember this temperature factor.
The best bet is to field dress the bird as soon as possible after it is shot and skin it when you get home. If you prefer, you can hang your birds in a cool, dry place for a couple of days before skinning. This aging process has some merit for slightly tenderizing old cock birds, but you will generally be unable to detect any difference in taste between birds skinned at once and those skinned a few days later.
Skinning a bird is easy. Slit the skin lengthwise, keeping the cutting edge along the center of the breastbone. Now, 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 leg joint. At this point, bend each leg backward until the joint cracks, and then cut off the leg. With the breast and both legs now free of skin, cut the tail off at its base.
Now, take each wing and bend it backward at the first joint until it cracks. Cut off the wing tips and the head. Finally, peel the skin down toward the neck and off the bird.
If you freeze your birds after skinning, make sure there are no air pockets in the package, since these air traps can cause freezer burn. When you plan to eat a bird, let it thaw slowly in the refrigerator. Don’t rush it on the kitchen counter.
The absence of skin on your birds should not bother you, and it doesn’t affect the table quality of the birds. Game birds are generally dry and must be basted frequently while cooking. Cover the birds with bacon strips. The bacon creates a “skin” for the birds, retaining body juices and adding moisture and taste.
About the author:
Vin T. Sparano is the author of Complete Outdoors Encyclopedia as well as three other guides for Rizzoli.
He has been an outdoor editor and writer for more than fifty years. He is editor emeritus of Outdoor Life, and has written and edited more than fifteen books about the outdoors. In 2013, he was inducted into the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame.