Seven days after we’d bagged several pheasants a friend told me his birds were still hanging in his shed. “I always hang my birds a while before cleaning and plucking them,” he said.
While I wasn’t surprised the friend was hanging birds before cleaning them, the length of time he’d left them in his shed raised an eyebrow. Hanging game birds, generally to age and tenderise them and to enhance their flavour, is a traditional practice, one that harks back to the old country. But from what I’ve been told by people who hang game birds, four or five days might be the limit, especially if the temperature fluctuates wildly, as it often does here through November.
A couple of my hunting acquaintances hang game birds, and that includes everything they bag – pheasants, grouse, waterfowl and woodcock. One friend has screened boxes large enough to accommodate four or five pheasants or ducks. He hangs what he bags in the boxes, undrawn and the feathers on for three to four days if the temperature remains constantly cool.
Now, hanging birds with the innards in them for several days may not appeal to you at first, but think about it for a minute. The beef you buy at the grocers is aged. Bag a deer and if it’s a big, old buck you definitely are going to hang it for a few days. My father always hung deer for a few days, and young venison for short periods. As I recall, older, tougher bucks were hung at least four or five days. “It takes the toughness out of them,” my father used to say.
Outside of the couple of friends I mentioned, no one I know of hangs game birds today. I usually get odd reactions when I bring up the topic of hanging game when I talk with other hunters. “I heard of it but never do it” is a common reaction, along with “what are you talking about?”
With the majority of hunters it’s shoot that bird, clean and pluck it quickly, put it in the freezer until it’s time to do some cooking. As I mentioned, it’s an old world tradition, familiar to many but practiced by few.
As for me, I hang pheasants and ducks for a couple of days but only if they haven’t been shot up much. I found that hanging some game birds improved their flavour somewhat. Some of the best tasting ducks and woodcock I ever ate were left hanging undrawn and unplucked for four to five days. Once I experimented with woodcock by hanging them in my cold room for a week. At the end of the week the birds had softened some but had a clean smell when gutted. To this day I’ve never tasted woodcock any better than those birds; the hanging really enhanced their flavour.
There’s a bit of science behind hanging game birds by the way. An important ingredient is the hanging temperature. Some game cook books, the older editions especially, discuss the proper way to hang birds and offer plenty of tips. Two of the five wild game cook books I have recommended it’s best to hang birds for at least three days when the temperature is steady, say between 50 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
It’s a bit of bother to hang birds and I suspect hunters familiar with it simply don’t bother because of all the rigmarole. The practice seems to go against everything we’ve been taught about handling meat and fowl carefully due to bacteria. The fear of e. coli bacteria looms when the topic of hanging game birds comes up, stopping most hunters from thinking seriously about it.