Gerald Almy: Gamebirds from field to table

Ruffed grouse are still legal game for well over a month. After that, many upland bird hunters in the Shenandoah Valley turn to pheasants, hunting on well-managed preserves as late as March. Once that closes, it’s only a few more weeks until spring gobbler season opens. If you enjoy a successful outing focused on any of these quarries, you’ll face the issue of how to care for the delectable birds you’ve bagged.

Taking proper care of birds in the field is vital if you want to enjoy the rich, subtle flavors and tender texture wild gamebirds offer as table fare. Make just one mistake — like putting a gamebird in a plastic bag before it’s totally cooled down — can ruin the hard-earned meat of a pheasant, quail, turkey or duck. Yet by following just a few basic rules, these pitfalls can be avoided and you will wind up with the fresh, tasty ingredients for a superb dining experience.

Gamebirds — whether short-range fliers with white meat, or long-distance migrants with darker flesh — offer something special that no amount of money can buy. Even the “gamebirds” sold in gourmet specialty shops and fancy restaurants are just domesticated versions of wild birds. They lack the varied, natural diet of truly wild animals foraging in field and forest and also the active lifestyle that keeps those birds lean and low in fat.

Obtaining the best wild meat actually starts before the trigger is pulled. Avoid shooting a gamebird at short range or with too tight of a choke. If a bird is too close, let it get out a few yards more before pulling the trigger.

When hunting turkeys, and if possible with other gamebirds, aim at the head and neck. That way you’ll avoid getting too many pellets in the body. This also results in the quickest, most humane death for the bird.

One of the main ways gamebirds are ruined or deteriorate is from putting them in plastic bags. Never do this unless the bird has totally cooled down and can be kept in a cooler or refrigerator. Even then, the bag should not be sealed, but left open. The plastic traps in any heat remaining and can quickly cause the bird to spoil.

Upland gamebirds, geese and ducks can be field dressed at the end of the hunt unless the weather is extremely warm. If the temperature is in the 70s or warmer, and you can put the birds in a cooler, it may be preferable to clean them immediately, or when you take a break from the hunting. You can also draw the entrails out of gamebirds in the field with the special hooked prong some pocket knives are equipped with and finish cleaning them later.

Avoid carrying birds in game pouches stacked on top of each other for more than a couple of hours, since this traps the body heat. Instead, place them in a cool, shady place, hang from a tree, or carry on a belt holder so air can circulate around them.

Whether to skin or pluck a bird is a personal choice. There are advantages and drawbacks to each method. Plucking makes a more aesthetically appealing presentation for the dinner table and helps retain moisture while the bird cooks. Plucked birds can be broiled, fried or baked. If you decide to pluck your game, it’s easiest to do this in the field soon after you’ve shot it, while the bird is still warm and feathers come out easily. After a few hours, the feathers set up and are harder to remove.

Skinning is quicker and removes most of the chemical residues a bird might have in its system, as well as the majority of fat and cholesterol — potentially important health benefits. Cook skinned birds in liquids or by pressure-cooking if possible, so they don’t dry out.

Next Week: More tips on caring for gamebirds.

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.