To Pluck or Not to Pluck

To Pluck or Not to Pluck

Why merely breast a gamebird when you can pluck it and enjoy the skin, legs and organs as well?


By George Calef

Most everyone who hunts, particularly big game, knows the rules regarding wasting meat. Alberta’s regs, for example, state it simply but equivocally: “It is unlawful to destroy or allow the edible meat of any game bird or big game animal (except cougar or bear) to become unfit for human consumption.” What’s “edible” is not defined. The Yukon, on the other hand, specifies exactly what a hunter must take in the case of big game (but not gamebirds): “the neck and rib meat, the two front quarters down to the lower leg joint, the two hind quarters down to the hock, the backstraps and the tenderloins.” That leaves out the head, bones, internal organs and hide. I wonder if the authors of these regulations realize their cultural bias or the effects that hunters following only the “letter of the law” might have on the attitudes of non-hunters.

Suppose that a freshly field-butchered moose or caribou were laid out in five piles: all the red meat, all the bones, the organs and entrails, the head, and the hide. If a native hunter looked at this array and were given a choice on a pound-for-pound basis, he probably would take the organs first, the head second, and then puzzle about whether to take the bones, with their supply of rich fatty marrow and minerals, the hide (if his clothing were getting worn out) or the meat as a distant third. In other words, the only parts of the animal that a licensed hunter is legally obliged to take would be considered less choice by someone from a culture whose members survived for millennia on what they killed—someone, furthermore, who would be astonished that a hunter would even consider abandoning parts that are perfectly “edible” and thus waste resources and dishonor the animal whose life had been taken, however “legally” allowable such abandonment might be.

In my experience the situation is even worse for gamebirds. The regs that I’m familiar with (with the notable exception of Montana’s) aren’t specific about what is required to be taken from birds. Many hunters I know—including my own son and some of my hunting companions, despite my counseling otherwise—rarely do more than breast their birds. And I guarantee you that no game warden (again except in Montana) would ever charge a hunter who merely breasted birds with wasting meat. Sure, some waterfowlers may pluck a particularly nice goose or two for a special Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, but rare is the bird hunter who plucks a limit of ducks or geese, much less tender-skinned grouse or little quail. Even rarer is the hunter who saves the organs or uses the carcasses for soup.

Last year along the edge of a lake in Alberta I came across a big pile of Canada goose carcasses. Only the breast meat had been taken; everything else had been abandoned: the delicious hearts and livers; the fat skin; the legs, which have as much meat on them as a grouse or partridge; the carcass, which would make enough rich soup to feed a half-dozen people; and the down, which is more valuable on a weight basis than almost anything on earth. When you see such a heap of carcasses, the breast meat starts looking highly insignificant. It appears that the entire bird is lying there abandoned. As a lifelong hunter, I am used to seeing dead animals, but that pile disturbed me. I can imagine how a non-hunter or anti-hunter would be outraged by such waste.

Similarly, last year at a visitor center I noticed a plastic bag of “garbage” discarded beside the dumpster. I picked it up to properly dispose of it and discovered that it contained three breasted grouse left there for the world to see how “hunters” use their quarry.

Twenty or 30 years ago anti-hunting sentiment was very strong and increasing. Luckily our heritage survived, and today there is a renewed interest in hunting. Non-hunters now are more apt to view hunting, if not with approval, at least with acceptance—under certain conditions. Those conditions relate to the spirit in which the animal is killed and how it is used. The organic and local food “movements” are strong and growing; that’s where much of the renewed interest in hunting comes from, especially from urban dwellers. Hunting fits perfectly into those concepts. Michael Pollan’s best-selling book The Omnivore’s Dilemma contains an eloquent discussion of these movements as well as the story of his own conversion to hunting through what might be termed “food logic.” As a bonus, the book also refutes the spurious logic of the extreme animal-rights movement with arguments superior to anything I have read in any pro-hunting magazine or book.

But killing done casually or what appears to be callously for mere sport or trophies is now even more universally condemned. The frontier is long gone. With 8 billion humans putting ever-increasing pressure on resources and habitat for wildlife, the time has long passed when we can afford to waste any useful part of any resource—and that certainly includes gamebirds.

Do I always do as I say? Do I pluck every bird that my brave little Labrador retrieves? Do I eat every heart, liver and gizzard and save every carcass and plume of down? Of course not. But I try to. There always will be birds shot badly enough or so chewed up by an overzealous dog that the organs aren’t salvageable. Sometimes I skin lean, pin-feathered early season ducks rather than pluck them; the flavor is in the fat, so these birds are more suitable for soup anyway.

Some species are simply hard to pluck. The fat skin on snow geese, for example, is so tender that, alas, it usually tears too easily for clean plucking. As for gizzards, I confess that I don’t like either the flavor or the texture, and even my Labrador, who generally will eat anything organic, including many items that a hyena or vulture wouldn’t touch, inexplicably turns up her nose at them. As knowledgeable bird hunters know: Always trust the dog.

If your mother forced you to eat overcooked liver when you were a kid, I’m pretty sure you have a lifelong aversion to that particular entrée. But one of my grandsons’ favorite meals is liver with bacon and onions, even though his father and brothers grumble about it. My daughter-in-law made a gigantic and magnificent comforter from the goose down I had saved over several years, even though her husband doesn’t take the time to save the down from his birds. Thus, I’m fully aware that there are many personal tastes and aversions, family complications and time constraints involved in what happens to a bird once it’s in the bag.

So what I’m saying is not an absolute; it is a question of attitude. Taking the time to properly utilize one’s birds should be considered an integral and positive part of the hunt, not an onerous duty. It’s a chance to revel in the birds’ exquisite plumage and remarkable adaptations, to remember the shots and the dogwork. It’s a time for reflection, a time for comradery and banter if you are with buddies, a chance to give thanks for the hunt and its bounty. Trust me: If you spend more time processing the birds you take and learning to use and enjoy more of their parts, you will eat better, enjoy the hunt more and win the approval of non-hunters, whose attitudes toward our motives and behavior ultimately will determine the future of the tradition we treasure.


George Calef

George Calef, his photographer wife, Brodie, and their brave Labrador, Motzie, plan to hunt and pluck their way across the Alberta prairies and Western states again this fall, as George procrastinates about writing a book on their former quest to hunt all of North America’s gamebirds with their dearly departed chocolate Lab, Heidi.

3 Comments

  • Reply November 12, 2019

    BrianB

    Cultural appropriation? Can we not escape the bossy, shaming “woke” crap even in a hunting magazine?
    Is the author saying it should be illegal to NOT eat bird bones and gizzards? We don’t live in Native American culture. Absolutely nothing prevents anyone from eating whatever part of what they shoot they desire. And the vast majority of all hunters do eat some part of the meat so laws reflecting that to prevent the wasting of game makes sense. Extending those laws to organs, bones and skin doesn’t.
    If the point of this was ‘don’t waste game or leave animal parts all over the place’ then it could have been a one sentence article and made a lot more sense. The author makes a concession that some people might have different tastes than him but then says “trust me” if we’ll just learn to like the same stuff he does we’ll not only eat “better” which is pretty questionable, enjoy the hunt more, ditto, but also win the approval of non hunters. Not leaving a gut pile in a parking lot might not alienate non hunters, but how is me sitting down to a mouth full of feathers, kidneys and bones in my own home going to?

    Here’s what I consider a more apt ethos; let’s agree on some reasonable minimal moral and even legal framework such as we should utilize some reasonable portion of the animals we shoot and shouldn’t leave a mess behind for someone else to deal with. And after that we have the freedom to do as we please according to our own tastes and desires and we resist telling others they’re bad people if they don’t do what we do. It’s called liberty; a thing seemingly not overly valued these days.

  • Reply November 12, 2019

    JoePete

    George your article is spot on. Despite the trouble to pluck them I too do Canada’s and save the down . Thanks for the inspiration to do a better job by taking just a little more from my harvested game. Duck and goose legs make great soup stock. Plucking pheasants for bringing and smoking will reward you like nothing you might have guessed. The catalogs sell smoked pheasant at outrageous prices because smoked pheasant IS an outrageous flavor treat. Happy Holidays, happy hunting days.

  • Reply November 12, 2019

    Greg Van De Rostyne

    I try to utilize as much of a game bird as possible,as well. Here’s what to do with gizzards and liver (and hearts, too, if you wish): make confit with them. Confit is the process of preserving meat with fat. Duck confit, for example, is duck meat that’s been salted (a good way is with a weak brine) and cooked very slowly in duck fat deep enough to cover the meat. The meat is then put in a container it just fits in, and covered with duck fat. It can then be frozen or refrigerated until ready to use.

    Traditionally, the French used this method as a way to preserve duck. They would store it in the coolest part of a root cellar.

    Using the confit method on the organ meat is a great way to use these meats. In France, confit gizzards are sliced thinly and used in certain salads. The liver preserved this way is wonderful.

    But the fat, you say? Wild ducks don’t have nearly enough fat to be rendered to accumulate enough to be able to make confit. The answer is to buy it, but not from a gourmet/specialty store. Buy it mail order by the small pail, its much cheaper and you can store it in the freezer for years. You can even save the drained excess when making confit, store it separately, and use it again. You can use chicken fat too, if you can find enough of it.

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