In response to several readers questions generated last month on a couple of the email lists regarding field dressing a pheasant (or other game bird) once you get it to hand, I put this article together, along with the help of a couple of assistants who were kind enough to pose for the pictures.
Please note that for the purposes of this article, we used a large roasting chicken from the grocery store for the demonstration. The Game and Parks folks get a bit testy if you go out and shoot a pheasant in August around here, whether it's for educational purposes or not. In actual application this method, as taught to me by guys that kill hundreds of birds in South Dakota every year, works great from start to finsish on an unplucked, ungutted pheasant, complete with head and feet. I like this method because you start with a whole bird and end up with just the edible parts in one pile and the unedible parts in another and your hands and knife never need to touch the guts of the bird. Some of you may want to perform this task outdoors out of concern for the potential mess it may make. This method is a clean way to dress your bird and can easily be done indoors but if you must do it outside make sure you are using a clean dry spot, under an umbrella if raining. If you do not have any shade you may want to work underneath the shade of an outdoor umbrella as well. Once you have your spot you will be ready to start the process. The pheasant must be dead to start with, however, and that is the toughest part of this whole deal. Believe me, the rest is easy no matter how you choose to skin this cat.
So, assuming we have actually hit a bird and the dog found it and actually left it where we could find it this time, let's begin;
The ideal thing in this situation, of course, is to do like I did in these pictures and get someone else to do this whole job for you. Failing any willing volunteers, proceed until you find one...and again, I think that ungutted birds, fully feathered with head and feet on is the way to go. I don't field dress any birds, I just put them someplace cool until I get home. In fact, as long as it is below 40 degress Fahrenheit outside, I leave the shot birds in my cool garage for a couple days, guts in, feathers on, in the "continental tradition" to improve their condition for the table, but that is a subject for another time.
You will need a sharp pocket knife for this.
First, remove the wings. With the bird on it's back, extend the wing and allow the body weight of the bird to stretch that elbow joint tight (the bird's elbow, Art, not yours) and if you hit it just right with your knife, that wing will come right off with one easy cut to release the ligaments and tendons there, as shown.
Next, dejoint both legs at the "hips" by laying the bird on it's back, feet nearest to you and folding the legs backward, (one leg in each hand, Art) until it's knees meet behind it's back. You can get this going better sometimes by laying the bird on it's back over your knee. (You will know you are doing this right if you get lots of popping noises from the bird and your young daughter has to leave the room.) The purpose of this is to make it easy to remove the legs. I first begin this once the hips are dejointed by taking the feet off at the "knee" with my knife.
Then I open the bird's skin on it's belly near one leg and work it around with a finger or two and peel the skin off. Repeat for the other leg. Peel the skin right off on each side, right over the severed knees.
Once the legs are footless and swinging free of any skin, it is a simple matter to get up around the hip joint, which we previously dislocated, with your knife blade and cut the drumsticks off very close to the pelvic bone of the bird. Just pull the leg out a bit and slice right along between the ball and pelvis. Now you have two clean, skinned drumsticks for the freezer.
To make this work real slick you must cut the skin of the bird all the way around at the neck. it is not necessary to remove the head or cut the neck off. Just open up the skin in a similar manner that you used on the legs. Pull it around a bit and cut it loose and pull the skin down a bit on the bird's back so that you can make the last two cuts as shown. Please use your all-too-vivid imaginations to visualize this bird still complete with head and feathers. Make two cuts as follows:
With the bird laying on it's belly on the hood of your partners pickup or other hard surface, with it's head towards you, carefully and gently so as not to scramble any guts, run your knife, blade up, into the opening at the front of body cavity and cut a short incision along the spine from where the neck starts, down the bird's back about an inch and a half.Do this on both sides of the spine as shown. You must cut up through some ribs here, so make sure that knife is sharp. Stay as close to that spinal column as you can. (Remember; no one has ever hurt themself with a SHARP knife. It's the dull ones that you have to force around and through that will slip and get you.) This picture shows the results of both cuts finished.
Almost done!! Now put the knife down and take your two thumbs and put them into the chest cavity opening as shown. One hand should then grasp the bird's breast at the top between one thumb and fingers and the other hand will have the bird's back held between thumb and fingers at the top of the spine. Now, just pull the breast free!! Hang on tight and pull the back (which will come free with all the guts intact if you do it right) and breast apart, as shown. You kinda have to twist and pull the bird inside out, as shown, to get this to go right. You will end up with a clean, nearly skinned breast in one hand and the back with all the skin with all of the innards and stuff in the other. You will know you have down this right if your young daughter leaves the room and you hear funny noises from down the hallway. I like to do this part right over the garbage can so a can just drop the unwanted, yucky handful right in and take the rest off to prepare with the drumsticks for the table or freezer after pullng off any remaining skin and feathers from the breast.
It's quick, it's clean; It's a great party trick! Using this method, I have seen 2 or 3 guys with a lot of practice start on a 20 man limit of pheasants (60 roosters) and be done with the job and on their second beer before half-time went by. I don't have that much practice, but I have used this method since I learned it and I don't mind cleaning birds nearly as much now. You can modify the method a bit and even use it on birds as small as quail, if you like.