It’s September 2, the day after the Arizona pigeons open. Yesterday morning my alarm tried to wake me up at 4am After a few hits of the snooze button it finally succeeded. I made a strong cup of coffee and loaded up my truck with the gear I’d left the night before. In no time, he was on the road.
We spent the morning in the company of good friends and even better throwing wings. When I shot the last of my 15 bird limit, things were heating up and pigeons were flying everywhere. It was quite a sight to sit and watch my friends take part in all the action. Almost everyone on that hunt went home with a cap, but before they did, most stopped before driving home to quickly get their birds out.
Breasting a pigeon is a simple way to remove a piece of skinless breast meat from a pigeon. This could be the simplest and fastest way to dress up any game species out there. Taking only the breast of a pigeon is justified for a couple of reasons. In most states, the cap is generous, which can make for a lot of work after a morning hunt. Also, literally 95 percent of a pigeon’s consumable meat is in the breast. Therefore, this article should not be seen as an argument against nursing pigeons, but rather as an argument in favor of plucking and dressing them whole.
Birds are quite durable and age well in the refrigerator. Some would even argue that they get better with a little aging. I have kept pigeons and other birds in the refrigerator for up to 10 days before processing with no ill effects. However, I will admit that I have never noticed a huge difference between the ones I have aged and the ones I have eaten fresh. So my only real excuse for throwing my pigeons in the fridge after yesterday’s hunt was laziness. While that may be true, it allows me to rest and give them all the attention they deserve later in a clean kitchen with the benefit of running water.
So if 95 percent of the meat is in the brisket, why go to the trouble of processing it whole? There are several reasons, so let’s go through the list.
First, it’s easy. Pigeons are very easy to start, the feathers literally fall off in your hand, and with a little practice you can get over an entire cap in no time. After plucking your bird, use a pair of kitchen shears to cut off the wings, lower legs, and head, then finally make a cut near the vent and remove the entrails. It really is as simple as that. If the suckling method did not exist, pigeons would still be considered among the easiest game animals to process.
Below are dozens of delicious recipes that lend themselves to whole birds. Everyone loves poppers, and I am no exception, but with the generous limits available to pigeon hunters, there is no excuse not to expand your pigeon recipe repertoire. They can be fried, roasted, smoked, stewed, and grilled in many different ways. One of my favorites is Hank Shaw’s Grilled Doves la Mancha. Check it out on the Hank’s Hunt Gather Cook website and the Hunt to Eat YouTube channel.
After you’ve dressed, prepared and eaten your whole pigeons in one amazing recipe and come to terms with the fact that you’ve been doing it wrong all this time, don’t stop there! Keep that ball rolling. Once you’ve eaten that last piece of meat, put those bones away. A 15-bird limit of those seemingly useless little carcasses can provide a full three quarts of incredible stock. Even if you’re going to be using just the breast for skewers or poppers, pigeon stock still provides more than enough reason to process those birds whole. Pigeons are a delicious earthy broth that can be used for braising, making rice, or as a wonderful base for soups and stews. I’d be wrong if I didn’t mention saving hearts and gizzards as well. Sauté these and mix them into a risotto you’ve made with your pigeon broth and you’re in for a real treat.
This discussion cannot be had without mentioning the respect for the quarry. There is an argument to be made to show the crop the respect it deserves. A pigeon, however small and numerous, is no less alive than a moose or a bear and deserves the same respect that we give to any animal we kill and bring to our table. This respect can be shown in many ways: fair hunting ethics, striving for a quick and clean kill, and getting the most out of the harvest. It is the latter that is most often overlooked. I wish I could honestly say that I make the most of every kill simply because of my superior ethics, but that would clearly be a lie.
For me, getting the most out of an animal that I can not only makes me feel like I’m giving the crop the respect it deserves, but it’s also just plain fun. I love to hunt, I love to immerse myself and participate in the natural world, and I strive to squeeze every ounce of fun out of it. Also, isn’t the processing, cooking, and consumption of the animal all part of the reward of a complete and successful hunting experience?