Mourning doves are among the tastiest of all upland gamebirds. However, dove hunts usually take place during the hottest days of the hunting season, so proper field care is essential for a good dove dinner. Bring a cooler into the field on hot days to prevent your birds from spoiling. If possible, gut doves in the field or immediately after the hunt. Once the entrails are removed, there’s little risk of spoilage if you keep the birds cool.
To gut a dove, turn the bird over on its back, pull a few feathers away from the vent area, and slit the skin. Reach a finger inside and pull out the entrails, making sure you get all the way to the top and front of the cavity to remove the lungs, which are nestled up along the backbone. Make a second short cut at the base of the neck and pull out the windpipe and crop. Wipe the inside of the body cavity with a paper towel. Field dressed in this manner, doves will last several days. In fact, some cooks like to age birds by storing them uncovered, with feathers on, in a refrigerator for a few days.
Skin doves by first cutting off the last two joints of the wings. Then, take off the feet by cutting the skin around the bottom of the drumstick. Bend the leg back and forth, cut through the tendon, and the foot will come off neatly. Place your fingers in the slit you made to remove the windpipe and crop. Tear the skin down the middle of the breast and pull it away from the breast and legs. Pull the skin away from the wing joints. Once both wing joints are free, peel the skin off the back of the bird. The skin should now be attached only at the head and neck. Cut off the head, and the dove is skinned.
Though skinning is the fastest method of preparing doves for the oven, plucking takes only a few minutes and pays off by helping to keep the meat moist during cooking. There’s no need to wet-pluck doves or dip them in paraffin as you might with waterfowl; doves are easy birds to pluck dry. Pick just a few feathers at a time, and take hold of the feathers near the base to reduce the chances of ripping the delicate skin. Once the bird is plucked, singe any leftover downy feathers or “hair” over a gas burner or with a match.
If you would rather breast your doves than cook them whole, pluck only the breast feathers and then use shears or a knife to cut through the ribs below the breast to the wing joints, as shown above. Pull the breast upward as if it were hinged at the wings, then cut it free from the rest of the carcass. If you skin or pluck your birds during or immediately following the hunt, remember that federal law requires hunters to transport migratory birds with one fully feathered wing left attached to the carcass for identification purposes.