A few years ago I was in a Southern duck camp full of seasoned wingshooters. I was shocked to learn how many had never plucked a duck and
A few years ago I was in a Southern duck camp full of seasoned wingshooters. I was shocked to learn how many had never plucked a duck and enjoyed the incredible depth of flavors generated from the crispy skin and fat. So I carefully plucked and breasted a few ducks and then lit a charcoal grill to create a raging inferno of heat and embers. The thermometer needle was quickly buried beyond the hottest temperature on the gauge. I placed the marinated duck skin down, and the heat immediately started to render fat. The cooking process took under five minutes, and after resting the breasts, I sliced them thin and against the grain. A flavorful ginger-orange sauce was drizzled over the top, and the medium-rare morsels carefully made their way to the table.
To say the duck was devoured in seconds would be an understatement. It’s also an understatement to say that wild ducks and other game birds are highly underrated when it comes to discussing the best tasting wild game.
I have hunted upland game birds and waterfowl across North America and on several other continents, and the eating has always been as important as the harvest. Ducks, geese, grouse, partridge, pheasant, and turkey are all delicious when handled proplerly in the field and cooked well in the kitchen. Developing favorite recipes for each species led to a list of the best-eating game birds.
The mallard is the most popular duck for America’s waterfowlers, and for good reason. Greenheads are widespread, thrilling to hunt, and a fat, late-season mallard simply bursts with flavors thanks to its diverse diet of grains and aquatic vegetation. Duck fat confit is a culinary delight, and having a bird render in fat while roasting adds flavor and moisture that is off the charts. Poking holes in the skin will ensure it gets crispy. The only question is whether to stuff it with dried fruit, breadcrumbs stuffing, or wild rice? I never plan on leftovers and cook one bird for each person at the table. The long-necked pintail is a close rival to mallards in the dabbler duck category, but it is more dainty and has white fat instead of mallard yellow.
As for mallard recipes, poppers are a good option with any waterfowl, but when looking for a complete flavor profile, always pluck the best birds and cook to render the fat and crisp up the skin. Poking holes in the skin before grilling or roasting will help ensure the skin is crisp while you enjoy everything the duck has to offer. Read next: Cook a Wild Duck Like a Real Chef
2) Wild Turkey
Wild turkeys are a wildlife management success story. Settlers and colonists coming to North America devoured the large game birds, and overhunting reduced their numbers drastically. The fact that wild turkey tastes better than domestic turkey might be part of the reason why wildlife managers were so succesfull in getting public buy-in for wild turkey reintroduction efforts. The meat is darker with more intense flavor, likely due to the varied diet that might shock some hunters who have never investigated a bird’s crop. Wild turkeys are know to eat everything from corn to acorns to bugs to snakes.
The breast meat is exquisite, and the legs and thighs should always be savored for unique recipes where the flesh is braised to fork tender. Because of its milder flavor, the wild turkey is a great bird to convert non-hunters into wild game connoisseurs.
Turkey nuggets are a delight, but cutlets or schnitzel take a turkey to a new level. There are several species of wild turkey and they’re all delicious. Read next: Four Wild Turkey Recipes to be Thankful For
3) Specklebelly Goose
There will be some debate about what bird is worthy of the moniker “ribeye of the sky.” The sandhill crane (see the next entry) is often dubbed with this nickname, but the specklebelly can steal the show where the birds’ ranges overlap. This arctic nesting bird has a narrow flyway and is always sought after as a trophy. However, the real reward comes at the table. Specks migrate early and fatten up fast. Adults are among the first waterfowl to develop full plumage and lose pinfeathers. The sedges and forbs that they feed on in the north quickly change to a diet of grains and legumes once the birds migrate through agricultural country. The best tasting game birds are always the juveniles that are tender and delicious, like the veal of waterfowl. The birds roast up spectacularly, and the breasts grill like a nice beef steak. The legs and thighs on a speckle-bellied goose are often overlooked but are excellent when appropriately prepared in a recipe that promotes tender meat.
Breasts are often grilled to perfection, but legs and thighs should be braised—they will compete with any fowl. A slow-roasted speck is full of flavor and it’s a real treat when you harvest the perfect bird for picking.
4) Sandhill Crane
Sandhill cranes are classified as waterfowl but have unique characteristics. Adult birds can be 20 to 30 years old, but that does not negatively impact their taste or tenderness. Sandhill crane meat really does compare to an aged beef ribeye steak. However, the flavor is unique and intriguing. Crane’s breasts are dense and medium-grained. It looks like an excellent beef cut on the plate, especially when done correctly at medium rare. A crane cooked well done does not have the same appeal (but all meat loses palatability when dried and overcooked). A nice marinade to add flavor and some oil for developing grill marks will ensure the presentation is as good as the meal.
It is challenging to not cook sandhill crane breast like a steak. But they also roast nicely and can be used in stir fry or made into ginger or teriyaki crane dishes. When using sauces, always try to enhance the best tasting game birds and not hide their natural flavors.
5) Ruffed Grouse
A buddy of mine has proclaimed himself as the patron saint of ruffed grouse. His love for ruffed grouse means he constantly talks about their virtues, including how delicious they are. Ruffed grouse offer white meat, and even the legs and thighs are light in color. A plucked bird is loaded with flavor. Early trappers and settlers considered the bush partridge a medicine bird due to their varied diet. The herbs and berries in the bird’s crop made it a natural herbalist, and ruffed grouse soup was believed to cure what ailed you.
This delicious little upland game bird can be cooked in many ways. Just thinking about fresh bush chicken sandwiches while out hunting will make your mouth water. Roasted grouse is tremendous and it’s well worth plucking them. For best results, pluck the bird while it is warm and fresh. The longer it sits, the more challenging it will be to pluck without ripping the skin.
The canvasback duck has been revered as one of the best tasting game birds of all time and fetched an incredible price during the days of market hunting on the Chesapeake Bay. Flavor, size, and tenderness are the attributes that helped take this prized fowl to the top. A bull canvasback can weigh up to 3.5 pounds and was a favorite fowl of George Washington. A roasted canvasback appeared on the Waldorf Hotel’s menu in New York City. The king of ducks cost $4.50 in 1907, which equates to well over $100 in today’s economy.
If you were ever going to roast a duck, the canvasback would be your best choice. Set the table with linens and fancy silverware, as a fat bull is an iconic meal that presidents, royalty, and celebrities revered. Nowadays, hunters and their friends and family are the only ones with the opportunity for roast canvasback, so savor every bite of it.
7) Ring-necked Pheasant
The ring-necked pheasant was introduced to North America well over a hundred years ago and continues to be a favorite among wingshooters today. Colorful roosters often provide the perfect feathers for tying flies. However, the white breast meat, and even the legs and thighs, are what make the pheasant a coveted table bird. The pheasant offers a diversity of cooking options including grilled, deep-fried, smoked, stir-fried, or roasted. Even finicky eaters will enjoy pheasant when it’s cooked tender and moist. But be careful with pheasant meat. It dries out fast, and there is no way to undo that cooking mistake.
Smoked pheasant is the all-time best tailgate lunch when hunting upland birds. Roast pheasant is a classic. Fried pheasant is crispy and flavorful, and don’t forget to use the carcasses for stock. Read next: Wild Game Schnitzel: A Recipe for Chicken-Fried Pheasant
8) Sharp-tailed Grouse
White-fleshed birds often get the most attention when it comes to table fare, but birds with dark flesh offer the most flavor. The sharp-tailed grouse gets overlooked (or even scorned) for having dark meat. But the haters don’t know what they’re missing. This native game bird excels in prairie habitats and can survive from the high arctic to the open grasslands and mountains. Sharpies are runners and strong flyers, meaning their muscles require oxygen. The dark meat is indicative of aerobic muscle fibers, and anyone who has hunted sharpies will know it can fly a long way after being flushed. If you prefer dark meat of a turkey or love duck or goose, then you’ll love sharptail. It has intense, rich flavors that are bolder than pheasant or ruffed grouse.
Embrace the flavors and enjoy a honey-bourbon fried breast, or brine and smoke a bird to tear into with hunting buddies. Butter grouse and other curry dishes can be outstanding. Sharp-tail pâté is lovely, and each bite will take you back to the native habitats where you found the bird.
All species of quail are elegant and grace a plate nicely. They are dainty, but a meal will require straight shooting and lots of ammunition. The tender white flesh is a tease, as there is never enough to satisfy a healthy appetite.
Blue-winged and green-winged teal may seem tedious for plucking and small for serving, but you’ll enjoy every one you harvest. A roaster full of teal will impress any waterfowl chef.
Hungarian or gray partridge is also terrific. Dusky or blue grouse are big, white-fleshed birds that take you into a unique country. Ptarmigan are the perfect blend of light and dark meat that one never forgets. Ross’ geese are tender and delicious waterfowl that deserve at least a mention.
Save the Skin
With any of the best tasting game birds, pluck whenever possible. The skin and fat add tremendous flavor. Plucking does take work, so sort birds and select the best for special meals, and then start tearing feathers. Feel the breastbone on waterfowl to determine how much fat may be hidden under the skin. Upland birds can be dipped in hot water to tighten the skin and make plucking easier. Commercial services are available in some areas where you can pay to have your birds processed professionally. No matter which game bird is your favorite, a little extra care while butchering will make it taste all the better.