Safe Handling of Wild Game Birds

Wild turkey in the field.

Wild turkey in the field.
Millie Davenport ©2023 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Wild Game Birds in South Carolina

A few species of game birds in South Carolina are Bobwhite Quail, Canada Goose, Doves, Waterfowl: Puddle Duck, Diving Duck, Geese, Swans, Wild Turkey, and Wood Duck. The safety and quality of the final prepared food is determined by the food safety practices applied during hunting, field handling, transportation, storage, and cooking.

Care in the Field

Be Prepared for the Hunt: Remember to bring a sharp hunting knife, a steel or whetstone, light rope or nylon cord, plastic bags, clean cloths or paper towels, and a cooler filled with ice.

Field Dress the Bird Promptly: There are critical steps to follow as soon as the bird is dead.

  • Remove the entrails and crop as soon as possible, because the grain in the crop may ferment if not removed.
  • The heart and liver may be saved for giblets. Store in a plastic bag on ice to keep them clean and cold.
  • The birds may be plucked or skinned in the field. However, be sure to leave an identification mark on the bird as may be required by state game regulations.
  • Cool the carcass quickly to retain flavor and maintain the quality of the bird. A temperature above 40 °F is meat’s worst enemy.
  • Wipe out the cavity with a clean cloth or paper towel. Do not use grass or snow, as this will contaminate the carcass.
  • Allow air to circulate in the carcass by hanging or laying the bird in a well-ventilated place.
  • In hot weather, place the birds individually in plastic bags and put them on ice.
  • Do not pile warm birds in a mass.
  • Store birds in a cooler on ice out of the sun.

Keep the Birds Cool During Transport: The best way to store birds is in a cooler on ice. If this is not possible, keep the car well-ventilated and put the birds on the back seat or the floor. Do not transport them in the trunk because the enclosed space does not allow heat to escape from the birds.

Care in Process & Storage

Don’t Cross-Contaminate During Processing:

  • Wash your hands, knife and cutting board with hot, soapy water and rinse thoroughly.
  • To prepare ducks, cut the wings off at the joints, remove the head and pluck out the pinfeathers. Feathers may be removed by scalding the birds in hot water (145 °F). Pin feathers and down may be removed by dipping the feathered bird in a paraffin wax/hot water mixture. When wax hardens, the feathers may be scraped off.
  • When preparing upland birds, such as grouse, pheasant, quail and partridge, skin or pluck the bird and soak it in cold water for one to two hours to remove excess blood.

Birds Generally Do Not Require Aging: If you wish to age birds, holding them at just above freezing temperatures for two to three days may increase the tenderness of the meat.

Storage Tips: For immediate use, birds should be stored in the refrigerator at 40°F or less and used within three days. For long-term storage, the whole cleaned carcass or individual parts may be frozen at 0 °F or lower. Do not freeze birds without plucking and cleaning them first.

  • Freeze meat while fresh and in top condition.
  • The advantage of packaging parts instead of the whole bird is that bloody spots can be eliminated by cutting out or rinsing out with cold water. Parts also fit conveniently in your freezer. Parts may be boned, and the carcass and neck used as a soup base.
  • Use moisture/vapor-proof wrap such as heavily waxed freezer wrap, laminated freezer wrap, heavy-duty aluminum foil or freezer-weight polyethylene bags.
  • Wrap tightly, pressing out as much air as possible. Label the packages with the content and date.
  • Use frozen packages within 6 months for best quality.

Care in Preparation

Thaw birds in the refrigerator or microwave. Slow thawing in the refrigerator for 12 to 18 hours helps to tenderize the meat and prevent bacterial growth. Microwave-thawed food must be cooked immediately. Other thawed meat should be used within one to two days. Keep raw food and cooked food separate.

Fish-eating ducks (those with pointed or serrated bills) may need soaking or marinating. Use a marinade high in acid, such as lemon or lime juice, vinegar, wine or buttermilk. You may soak older birds in a solution of ½ teaspoon salt and 1 tablespoon vinegar per quart of cold water for 4 to 12 hours in the refrigerator.

Care in Cooking Game Birds

Wild game birds should always be cooked thoroughly. Check visual signs of doneness; juices should run clear, and meat should be fork-tender. However, recent research has shown that color and texture indicators alone are not reliable. Using a thermometer is the only reliable way to ensure safety and to determine the “doneness” of meat and poultry. To be safe, a product must be cooked to an internal temperature high enough to destroy any harmful bacteria that may have been in the food.

When cooking whole poultry, the thermometer should be inserted into the thickest part of the thigh. If cooking poultry parts, insert the thermometer into the thickest area, avoiding the bone. If stuffed, the center of the stuffing should be checked. All poultry and stuffing must reach 165 °F to be safe. For reasons of palatability and acceptability, poultry may be cooked to a higher final temperature. The age of the bird determines the cooking method. Young birds have lighter legs, soft breastbones and flexible beaks. Old birds have darker, hard-skinned legs, brittle breastbones and inflexible beaks.

  • Wild duck meat is darker and somewhat dryer than domestic duck. To retain or add moisture when roasting older or skinned birds, cover the breast with strips of bacon or side pork and roast in a covered pan.
  • Game birds may be prepared like chicken. Dry cookery methods, such as frying, are appropriate for young birds. Moist cookery methods, such as stewing or braising, are appropriate for older birds.
  • Ducks, geese, and quail may be baked, barbecued, breaded, broiled, fried, and combined in casseroles, chop suey, creoles, gumbos and gravies.
  • To decrease the distinctive taste of some wild game, trim off as much fat as possible.
  • In roasting or broiling ducks, use a rack to keep them free of their own fat and do not baste with fat.
  • Remove stuffing from the bird prior to storage because stuffing is a good growth medium for microorganisms.
  • Use leftovers within one or two days, or freeze for later use.

Roast Wild Duck: Rub the outside of the duck with a slice of onion, then sprinkle with salt and pepper. You can flavor the bird and absorb strong flavors by placing a quartered peeled onion, grapes, quartered apples or potatoes, and a small bunch of celery in the cavity during roasting, but discard this stuffing before serving. If ducks are lean or have been skinned, place two or three strips of bacon or salt pork on each breast and secure with toothpicks. Place ducks on a rack in a covered roasting pan and bake in a 325 °F oven for three hours or until the internal temperature is 165 °F. If ducks need basting, use orange juice, melted butter, or melted butter and red wine rather than pan drippings.

Roast Wild Goose: The “flavor dressing” of apple, onion, potatoes and celery, as described for duck, can be placed in the bird during roasting. Place the goose on a rack in an uncovered roasting pan and bake in a 325 °F oven for three hours or until tender. Baste frequently with pan drippings. You can insert a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh muscle, without touching the bone, to determine internal temperature. Goose is safely cooked when the internal temperature is 165 °F and well done at 180 to 185 °F. Serve with a tart jelly or relish.

Dressing for Duck or Goose: We recommend baking dressing separately to avoid any chance of hazard from bacterial growth. Bake in a covered casserole in the oven while the bird is roasting. If you decide to stuff the birds, do so just before placing them in the oven, and have all ingredients hot before stuffing the birds. Use a meat thermometer to be sure the internal temperature of the dressing reaches 165-170 °F.

Wild Rice Dressing

2 cups cooked wild rice (½ cup uncooked wild rice, cooked in 1½ cups water or chicken broth)
¼ cup butter or margarine
¼ cup onion, minced
½ cup chopped celery
1 4-ounce can mushroom pieces and stems
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
½ teaspoon sage
½ teaspoon thyme or marjoram
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper

Cook onions and celery in melted butter or margarine until barely tender. Add drained mushroom pieces and continue cooking 5 minutes. Add cooked rice and all remaining ingredients. Bake in a covered casserole at 325 °F for 45 minutes.

Braised Wild Duck

2 ready-to-cook wild ducks, cut up
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
1 cup flour
1/3 cup butter or margarine
½ cup water, chicken broth or light cream
½ cup chopped onion
¼ cup chopped celery

Season duck pieces with salt and pepper and roll in flour. Melt butter or margarine in a heavy skillet and brown pieces on both sides (about 30 minutes). Turn only once. If you use onion and celery, remove duck pieces and cook onion and celery in the pan drippings for 10 minutes. Return pieces of duck to pan, add liquid and cover pan tightly. Simmer on top of range slowly for 1 hour or until tender, or bake in a 325 °F oven until the internal temperature is 165 °F.

Oven-Barbecued Duck

2 ducks, cleaned and halved
¼ cup melted butter or margarine
1 clove garlic, crushed
¼ cup salad oil
¼ cup lemon juice
1 tablespoon paprika
1/3 cup ketchup
1/8 teaspoon black pepper

Preheat oven to 400 °F. Place duck halves, split side down, in a shallow baking pan. Rub with crushed garlic and brush with melted butter or margarine. Roast, uncovered, for 10 to 15 minutes. Meanwhile, combine other ingredients and heat to simmering. Reduce oven temperature to 350 °F. Baste with sauce every 10 minutes until ducks are tender and have reached a minimum internal temperature of 165 °F, 40 to 50 minutes.

Microwave Directions for Duck or Goose: Place duckling or young goose in an oven-cooking bag (or in a covered pot). Microwave on high 6 to 7 minutes per pound. Crisp in 500 °F conventional oven 10 to 20 minutes.

When microwaving parts, arrange in a dish or on a rack so thick parts are toward the outside of the dish and thin or bony parts are in the center.

Allow 10 minutes standing time for bone-in goose or duck, 5 minutes for boneless breast.

Use a meat thermometer to test for doneness in several places and check for visual signs of doneness.

Bacon Wrapped Quail.

Bacon Wrapped Quail.
Adair Hoover, ©2021, HGIC, Clemson Extension

Bacon-Wrapped Quail Breast

Yield 16 pieces

Quail Meat
2 fresh green chili peppers (jalapeño if you like hot)
4 slices of bacon, cut in half
8 quail breasts
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 slices of muenster cheese, cut each slice into 4 pieces
1 tablespoon of unsalted butter


1 slice of bacon, minced
1 tablespoon minced fresh chili pepper
2 tablespoons minced shallots
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1/2 cup bourbon (optional)
4 tablespoon maple syrup
4 tablespoon Dijon mustard
6 tablespoon apple cider vinegar 2 tbsp. butter

Preheat oven to 400 0F. Cut 2 chili peppers into thin strips (4 strips per pepper).

Flatten out quail breasts skin side down, sprinkle with salt, and place a strip of pepper and a piece of cheese in the center of each breast. Roll the breast and wrap each piece with a ½ slice of bacon. Secure with a toothpick or skewer. Add rolled breast to a flat skillet heated to medium, turning once until each side begins to brown. Transfer breasts to a foil-lined baking tray that has been coated with nonstick spray and bake for 15-20 minutes or until a thermometer in the center of the breast reaches 165 0F.

Prepare the Sauce: Sautee minced bacon for about 3 minutes or until the bacon begins to brown. Add garlic, shallots, and minced chili peppers and cook until softened (about 2-3 minutes). Add bourbon, vinegar, maple syrup, and Dijon mustard and simmer for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and mix in butter.

For information on cooking turkey, request HGIC 3560, How to Cook a Turkey. For information on grilling and smoking, request HGIC 3543, Food Safety for Outdoor Cookouts. For information on Avian Influenza, see HGIC 4351, Avian Influenza (Bird Flu)and Hunters—Protect Your Poultry and Pet Birds From Avian Influenza (USDA 2022).

Estimated Times for Cooking Fresh Poultry*

Type of Poultry Parts Weight Roasting Unstuffed Roasting Stuffed Grilling/Smoking** Microwave
Chicken: 350 °F 350 °F Medium-High
Whole Roasting Hen 5-7 lbs. 2-2¼ hrs 2½-2¾ hrs 18-25 min/lb (smoked)** 9-10 min/lb
Whole Broiler Fryers 3-4 lbs 1¼-1½ hrs 1¾-2 hrs 60-75 min (smoked)** 9-10 min/lb
Breast Halves with Bone 6-8 oz 30-40 min 10-15 min/side 8-9 min/lb
Boneless Breast Halves 4 oz 20-30 min 6-8 min/side 6-8 min/lb
Legs or Thighs 4-8 oz 40-50 min 10-15 min/side 8-9 min/lb
Drumsticks 4 oz 35-45 min 8-12 min/side 8-9 min/lb
Wings or Wingettes 2-3 oz 30-40 min 8-12 min/side 8-9 min/lb
Turkey: 325 F° 325 °F Medium-High
Whole Turkey 12-14 lbs 3-3¾ hrs 3½-4 hrs 3-4 hours (smoked)** 14 lb. turkey maximum.
9-10 min/lb. Do not stuff.
14- 18 lbs 3¾-4¼ hrs 4-4 ½ hrs 15-18 min/lb ****


4¼-4½ hrs 4¼- 4¾ hrs 15-18 min/lb ****
20-24 lbs 4½ -5


4¾-5¼ hrs 15-18 min/lb ****
Whole Breast 4-8 lbs 1½ -3¼ hrs 8 lbs:

3-3½ hrs

1-2 hours 10-15 min/lb
(H) first ⅓ time
(M) last ⅔ time
Half Breast 2-3 lbs 50-60 min (M) 11-15 min/lb
Drumsticks ¾-1 lb each 2-2¼ hrs 1½-2 hours (smoked)** (MH)13-16 min/lb
Thighs ¾-1 lb each 1¾-2 hrs 1½-2 hours (smoked)**
Wings or Wingettes 6-8 oz each 1¾-2¼ hrs 50-60 min
350 °F 350 °F Medium-High
Duck & Goose


Whole Duckling 4-6 lbs. 30-35 min/lb Not Advised 2½ hrs. df(smoked)** 6-7 min/lb
Duckling Breast or Parts 30-40 min (grilled) 6-7 min/lb
Whole Young Goose 8-12 lbs 2½ -3 hrs 3-3½ hrs 2½ hrs (smoked)** 6-7 min/lb
Goose Parts 35-40 min grilled) 6-7 min/lb
425 °F 350 °F
Quail* Whole quail 5 oz 20 minutes 18-25 minutes 8-12 min/side
*Always use a thermometer to check proper internal temperatures. All poultry is safely cooked when an internal temperature of 165 °F is reached but may be cooked to higher temperatures for reasons of acceptability and palatability. Cooking times are only estimates.
**If smoked, use indirect heat and a drip pan rather than direct heat when grilled. DO NOT STUFF.
***Prick skin of whole duck or goose before roasting or smoking so fat can render.****When grilling place a pan of water beneath the grilling surface to collect fat and dripping juices.


  1. Garden-Robinson, Julie, Martin Marchello. A Pocket Guide to Care and Handling of Game Birds from Field to Table. NDSU Extension Service. FN-537, October 2022.
  2. Melcher, Linda and Jeff Powell. Waterfowl: After the Hunt. University of Wyoming Cooperative Extension Service. B-963, Jan 1992.
  3. USDA/FSIS (2021). Turkey from Farm to Table.
  4. USDA/FSIS (March 2022). Grilling and Food Safety.
  5. USDA/FSIS (August 2013). Duck and Goose from Farm to Table
  6. USDA/FSIS (July 2013). Turkey: Alternate Routes to the Table.
  7. USDA/FSIS (Sep 2017). Roasting Those “Other” Holiday Meats.

If this document didn’t answer your questions, please contact HGIC at or 1-888-656-9988.

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