How to Butcher a Duck

Pluck your birds and save the legs for the best wild duck you’ve ever eaten

Wild duck often gets a bad rap as table fare. Some of this comes from folks over-cooking it. A well-done duck breast will be dry, tough, and a little livery. But some of that “duck-tastes-bad” rhetoric also comes from hunters not treating their birds properly between the blind and the kitchen. If you let your birds sit in a muddy pile for half a day before butchering them, they’re bound to pick up some gamey flavor.

However, if you care for your birds properly, and butcher your birds carefully, wild duck can be some of the best game meat you’ll ever pull off the grill. The method in this video works especially well for late-season puddle ducks, which have a fatty layer of skin around the breasts and thighs (when fried to crisp, that skin is delicious) but it also works for divers and geese.

Field Care

You drop the first bird of the morning and your Lab runs out to retrieve him. By the time he gets back to the blind, more birds are setting in, so you throw the duck into the bottom of the boat and get back to shooting. More soggy ducks get added to the pile as the morning shoot continues. Then it’s time to pick up the decoys. Then lunch. Then you’ve got to unpack the truck. And oh yeah, maybe we should clean those ducks?

When you let ducks soak in mud and muck, eventually, some of that stench can work its way into the meat. I’ve eaten livery mallards that should have tasted delicious, and eaten terrific mergansers (yeah, seriously) that should have tasted horrible. More often than not, the difference is in how the birds were treated in the field.

It only takes a few seconds to hang ducks from a strap. This lets them air out and ensures their meat will taste fresh. So save your ducks, hang them in the blind or boat.

How to Butcher

This method takes a little extra work, but it’s worth it. Big ducks have more meat on their thighs than you might expect. And, the end result looks great. Most importantly, by plucking the breast and thighs, you preserve that delicious duck skin for the grill.

The first step is to pluck off the feathers. There are a bunch of different ways to pluck a duck. If you shoot a lot of birds, one of these pluckers is a great investment. Or, you can also use hot water (about 130 degrees) to loosen up the feathers. Simply dip the duck in hot water quickly, then get to plucking. If you don’t remove all the feathers in the first go, that’s fine. You’ll be cleaning the meat later under cold water (see below) and you can finish the job then.

Next, find the bird’s breast bone with your knife tip and start filleting away the breast. As you get to the edge of the breast, work your way down to the thigh. The key here is to NOT cut through the skin that attaches the breast and thigh. You want the two pieces of meat to stay attached. Work your knife between the duck’s body and it’s thigh until you hit the hip joint. Simply press the thigh toward the table to pop that joint, then continue your cut, separating the thigh from the body (but leaving it attached to the breast. Then, repeat on the other side.

There are a ton of ways to cook wild duck butchered this way, but my favorite is to sous vide the meat and then finish with searing it on a hot, fiery grill. If you butcher and cook your birds like this, wild duck just might become your favorite wild game meat.