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Handling Upland Game Birds and Waterfowl

Capt. Lewis

Sunday July 21st 1805.


We saw three swans this morning, which like the geese have not yet recovered the feathers of the wing and could not fly we killed two of them the third escaped by diving and passed down with the current; they had no young ones with them therefore presume they do not breed in this country these are the first we have seen on the river for a great distance. we daily see great numbers of gees with their young which are perfectly feathered except the wings which are deficient in both young and old. my dog caught several today, as he frequently dose. the young ones are very fine, but the old gees are poor and unfit for uce.

Handling upland game birds and waterfowl is much easier than big game but timely field dressing is just as important.  The methods for field dressing and transporting harvested game birds varies if the temperature is above or below 40 degrees F and if the hunt is a day trip or an extended trip.   In all cases the primary objective is to keep the birds clean and cool.


The main decisions that need to be made during processing game birds is whether to pluck, skin or fillet them.  Once they are processed they can be cooked immediately or frozen for future use.


Detailed information on field dressing, transporting, processing and freezing game birds follows.

Field Dressing & Transporting Upland Game Birds and Waterfowl

Capt. Clark

November 3rd Sunday 1805


Cap L. and 3 men Set out after night in this Canoe in Serch of the Swans, Brants Ducks &c. &c. which appeared in great numbers in the Lake, he Killed a Swan and Several Ducks which made our number of fowls this evening 3 Swan, 8 brant and 5 Ducks, on which we made a Sumptious Supper. We gave the Indian-who lent the Canoe a brant, and Some meat to the others.

Generally, waterfowl are harvested in cooler weather than upland birds and urgency in field dressing is not required. When hunting from a blind, the birds can be laid in the shade to cool. For jump shooting, putting the birds in a game vest or on belt type wire game carriers will suffice. However, early in the season when the weather can be hot, gutting and crop removal may be necessary.


Assume you will be successful and bring the following items:

  • Sharp knife

  • Nylon cord

  • Clean cloths or paper towels

  • Storage bags

  • A cooler with ice

  • Disposable rubber gloves

  • Clean water

Field dressing and transporting of upland game birds and waterfowl includes the following steps:


Warm Weather > 40 degrees F

  • Remove the entrails and crop, avoid cutting into the crop, gizzard or intestines

  • Wipe the cavity clean with a cloth or paper towel

  • Lay or hang the bird in a place that allows for good air circulation

  • The key concern during transport is to keep the birds cool.

  • Put them on ice in a cooler that will maintain a temperature at or below 40 degrees F.  

  • If you do not have a cooler or ice, place the game birds in a location that permits a good circulation of air.

  • This will help remove some of the residual body heat in the birds.  

  • Do not stack the birds together.

Cool Weather < 40 degrees F


  • Remove the entrails and crop, avoid cutting into the crop, gizzard or intestines (this step is optional for waterfowl because they are less prone to spoilage than upland birds ).

  • Put birds in game vest or on belt type wire carrier.

  • Put birds in a cardboard box in trunk or bed of pickup with provision for air circulation


The preceding steps apply to a day trip where the hunter returns home. For extended trips, the birds should be prepared for frozen storage and frozen.

Processing Birds

Processing Upland Birds and Waterfowl

Capt. Clark

October 17th Thursday 1805


Several men and woman offered Dogs and fish to Sell, we purchased all the dogs we could, the fish being out of Season and dieing in great numbers in the river, we did not think proper to use them, Send out Hunters to Shute the Prarie Cock a large fowl which I have only Seen on this river; Several of which I have killed, they are the Size of a Small turkey, of the pheasant kind, one I killed on the water edge to day measured from the Beek to the end of the toe 2 feet 6 & 3/4 Inches; from the extremities of its wings 3 feet 6 inches; the tale feathers is 13 inches long.

There are a number of ways to process game birds and the method used is primarily a matter of personal preference and how you plan to cook or store the bird. Keep in mind that the fat on the bird may, after some time in the freezer, impart a strong taste to the meat.


Three ways for removing the feathers from the meat are:


  • Plucking the feathers from the skin

  • Skinning the bird

  • Filleting the breast

If the bird is to be cooked within a month and a plucked bird is desired, the feathers may be plucked from the bird dry or after dipping the bird in hot water (145 degrees F).  The scalding relaxes the tissue around the feather making it easier to pluck them.

Feather removal using hot water works best if it is done soon after the bird was harvested otherwise the skin may tear as the feathers are plucked out.


Removing the breast by filleting is the cleanest and fastest way to prepare the meat but some meat will be wasted.  Skinning the bird preserves all the meat but in both cases the meat will have a tendency to dry out during cooking.  The use of baking bags and addition of bacon can help reduce drying.

After dry plucking or scalding, the bird will still contain pinfeathers which can be plucked off with tweezers, singed (burned) off, or scraped off after coating them with paraffin.  The fastest and easiest way is to singe them but this requires an open flame and it must be done carefully.  The paraffin method is suggested if you plan the roast the bird and want a nice appearance.  It is fairly simple:


  • Melt paraffin in hot water

  • Brush the melted paraffin on the pinfeathers

  • Allow the paraffin to harden

  • Scrape off the paraffin and pinfeathers

After skinning, the bird can be cleaned up by removing errant feathers, shot and blood shot areas and frozen whole in water. It is recommended that the legs and breast be removed from the back, cleaned up and frozen in water in empty, cleaned milk cartons or similar containers.  A second method is to vacuum pack the meat as discussed under Big Game.

Prior to cooking the fresh or thawed meat can be soaked for at least 1 to 2 hours in cold water to remove excess blood.  Another way is to prepare a salt water brine consisting of 1 quart of water, 2 tablespoons of salt and 1 teaspoon of vinegar and place the meat in the solution and let it stand overnight.  Its important to do the soak in the refrigerator where the temperature is less than 40 degrees F.


In general birds are not aged but if you want to age them, hold them at a temperature less than 40 degrees F for 2 to 3 days. The meat can now be cleaned, dried with a paper towel and cut for wrapping/freezing or cooked for immediate use.

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