"Bayou Bill" Scifres
Dedicated to the conservation and enjoyment of Indiana's natural resources
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Dry Picking vs. Skinning Game Birds
Copyright © 2004 by Bill Scifres

As noted in last week’s column, game birds and animals tend to taste better, and probably offer greater nutritional values, if the skin is left on. Bones also probably are important, nutritionally. 

Although it is impractical to leave the skin on such animals as squirrel, rabbits or any of the fur-bearers that are consumed by man, leaving the skin on larger game birds is not a problem.

I am thinking of pheasant, grouse, and waterfowl. My thinking does not apply well to smaller game birds such as quail, dove, woodcock and others.

Thus, I skin the smaller birds because dry picking or scalding takes much too much time. But I dry pick pheasant, grouse, and waterfowl (both ducks and geese), and I cook them with the skin on.

Generally, to remove the feathers and retain the skin of pheasants, grouse, and waterfowl (ducks and geese) I dry pick them this is hard, tedious work and it must be done carefully to avoid tearing the skin.

Before starting the dry-picking process, I line a clean garbage can with a large plastic bag. I hold the bird over the open bag. This allows detached feathers to fall into the bag. My bird cleaning chores are done in a warm room and arranged in a manner that will allow me to sit comfortably.

To start the dry-picking procedure, I remove tail feathers, and the primary and longer secondary feathers of the wings. Then with the bird in one hand (the back of the bird resting in the palm of my hand), I use the thumb and index finger of the other hand to pinch feathers of the neck and breast while pulling them gently toward the tail end of the bird.  There may be times when it will be necessary to pull off the feathers against their natural flow, but this will often lead to tearing the skin. When the larger feathers are removed, smaller, hair-like feathers (I call them fuzz) may remain attached to the skin, and this is rubbed and pinched off as much as possible as breast and thighs of the bird are cleared.

In the case of young birds, pinfeathers (those not well developed) may stick tight. I remove these (one at a time, if necessary) by grasping them between a knife blade and my thumb. 

When feathers and fuzz of the breast, thighs, and legs have been removed, I turn the bird over and remove feathers of the back in the same manner. Feathers on the first joints of the wings are removed with the same pinch-pulling motion. 

If some fuzz remains at the end of the operation it can be rubbed off with the pressure of the surface and the heel of the thumb (the part of the hand where the thumb is attached). If this fails to remove some of the fuzz, it can be removed by searing it with an open flame. This was a common practice in the southern part of Indiana for many years when chickens and other fowl were being dressed. The bird would simply be held by both legs and subjected to the flame of burning newspaper.

Once feathers and fuzz are removed, the heads and feet are removed, and the entrails and internal organs are removed by opening the body cavity with a crosswise cut just behind the breast. Necks, livers, and gizzards of larger birds are saved for cooking. Hearts, though not as popular with many, are tasty.

I save (freeze) livers, gizzards and hearts until I have enough for a dish that features these parts by turning them into a stew (with lots of gravy) or goulash-like dish served over biscuits or rice.

Hearts should be cut apart to drain, gizzards must be freed of the sandpaper-like interior surface that functions as the bird’s “gristmill,” and the small patch of gall must be removed from livers. But if handled well, they can be turned into great dishes.


On a few occasions I have taken the time to dry pick quail and I tend to think that cooking small birds with the skin on adds something to their taste--especially when they are fried. But dry-picking small birds, as note above, is a slow, tedious process. For that reason, I skin them.

There are no right or wrong ways to skin birds. The important aspect is only to get feathers and skin off the edible parts of the birds, which in most cases is the breast.

Here’s the way I handle the various birds:

QUAIL, WOODCOCK -- I remove the head and hold the bird by one back foot. Then grasping the skin between thumb and index finger of the other hand, I simply pull downward on the skin of the leg (just below the foot) and the skin peels off easily. This is repeated on the other leg and the skin is worked off   the body and the first joint of the wings. The wings are severed and feet are cut off, and the entrails are removed. This saves the entire body (including the back) for cooking.

DOVES -- Holding the bird in the palm of one hand, I snip off the wings close to the body and remove the head. Then I pull the skin away from the breast and extract that heart-shaped chunk of meat by pulling it out with my hands. Immersing the birds in clean, cold water prior to skinning will make the feathers less sticky.

COOTS  -- Coots are handled in much the same manner as doves but I also save leg quarters along with the breast. Incidentally, the coot--though very dark (even red) meat--is a tasty bird on the table.

All columns, essays, and photos are copyrighted by Bill Scifres and may not be reproduced in any form without prior permission from the author.  For reproduction permission and media usage fees, contact: Bill Scifres, 6420 East 116th Street, Fishers, IN 46038, E-mail: billscifres@aol.com

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