Proper Care and Handling of Game Birds from Field to Table

To reduce the risk of foodborne illness and improve food safety, hunters need to handle, process, and prepare game birds properly, to prevent contamination from field to table.
Proper Care and Handling of Game Birds from Field to Table - Articles


game bird food safety

Bring These Items When You Hunt

  • A sharp knife
  • A whetstone or steel for sharpening
  • Rope or nylon cord
  • Clean cloths or paper towels
  • Sealable storage bags
  • A cooler full of ice or snow
  • Disposable plastic gloves for dressing
  • Clean drinking water

Field Dressing

  • To reduce the risk of exposure to disease, wear disposable plastic gloves while handling birds.
  • Use clean water, premoistened wipes, or alcohol swabs to clean the knife frequently or between cuts to avoid dragging bacteria into the meat.
  • Using a clean knife, make a small lateral incision on the underside of the breast and then pull the skin and feathers off the carcass.
  • From the top side, cut down both sides of the back, starting near the head and cutting through to the last rib.
  • Separate the carcass by pulling the breast apart from the neck, back, and legs. The intestinal tract, heart, lungs, and liver will remain attached to the back portion of the carcass.
  • Avoid cutting the crop, gizzard, or intestines, since bacteria associated with foodborne illness may be found in these organs.
  • Remove the feet and lower legs at the joint below the drumsticks.
  • If the organs smell offensive or exhibit greenish discharge, black blood, or blood clots in the muscle, do not consume meat from these carcasses. Discard the carcass properly.
  • If keeping variety meats, place the heart and liver in a plastic storage bag and store on ice or snow, or refrigerate as soon as possible.
  • For identification purposes, leave either the head or a fully feathered wing. This is required by the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

Hints for Field Dressing

  • Dress the carcass as soon as possible.
  • Remove all visible dirt, feces, feathers, and bloodshot areas.
  • Wipe out the cavity with individual paper towels. Prop the cavity open with a clean stick or hang the carcass to aid in air circulation.
  • Do not pile warm birds together.
  • If you wash the cavity with water, dry the area quickly to prevent spoilage.
  • To prevent bacterial growth, quickly cool the carcass to 35-40°F.
  • After cleaning the cavity, place carcasses in plastic storage bags and pack on ice or snow, or refrigerate as soon as possible.
  • Keep carcasses out of direct sunlight and allow for adequate air circulation.
  • Young birds have lighter legs, softer breastbones, and flexible beaks. Older birds have darker, hard-skinned legs, brittle breast- bones, and inflexible beaks.

Transporting and Processing Game Birds

  • Keep carcasses cool during transport. Keep them out of sunlight. Do not put birds in a vehicle's trunk while still warm. Allow for adequate air circulation.
  • Hold the carcass at 40°F or lower. Freezing the carcass before processing may toughen the meat.
  • If aging a carcass, do so at 40°F or lower for two to three days.
  • During processing, frequently clean your knife between cuts to avoid contaminating the meat. Wash your knife, hands, and cutting boards often with warm, soapy water.
  • When preparing ducks, remove the wings by cutting them off at the joints, remove the head, and pluck out the pin feathers.
  • Remove feathers by dipping the carcass in a paraffin wax/ hot water mixture. Scrape off the feathers after the wax has hardened.
  • Soak grouse, pheasant, quail, and partridge carcasses in cold water for one to two hours to remove excess blood.

Kitchen Processing

  • Store any unfrozen meat in the refrigerator and use it within two to three days.
  • Save the carcass and neck bones to make soup base.
  • Keep raw meat separated to prevent cross-contamination in the refrigerator.
  • Marinate all meats in refrigerator.
  • Thaw all frozen meats in the refrigerator or microwave and use immediately.
  • Heat all game bird meats to 165°F to reduce the risk of foodborne illness. Use a calibrated meat thermometer to ensure proper cooking.
  • If you will be stuffing birds, use a calibrated meat thermometer to ensure an internal temperature of 165°F for stuffing and 180°F for the bird. Remove stuffing from the bird before refrigerating it, since stuffing is a great place for bacteria to grow.
  • Do not can meat unless you have a calibrated or recently tested pressure canner. Proper pressure and time are critical to ensure safely canned meat.
  • Use leftovers within one or two days, or freeze for later use.

Freezing and Smoking Tips

  • Freeze meat while it is still fresh.
  • Cut and package meat into meal-size portions.
  • Use heavily waxed paper, freezer wrap, heavy duty aluminum foil, or plastic freezer storage bags for meat storage.
  • Wrap meat tightly and remove all air from the bag before sealing.
  • Label packages with contents and dates.
  • Space packages in freezer to allow proper air circulation for cooling and freezing.
  • Once packages are solidly frozen (within 24 hours), you can restack them within the freezer.
  • Properly wrapped meat will store in the freezer for 9 to 12 months.
  • To avoid quality deterioration, do not refreeze thawed products.

Prepared by Catherine N. Cutter, associate professor and food safety specialist.