Revised June 2018.
Game birds are native or non-native birds that historically were wild game or decorative fowl but are now raised commercially for their meat or egg production or as "flight-ready" birds for release on hunting preserves or by state wildlife agencies. Game birds may include guinea fowl, partridges, peacocks, pheasants, pigeons and doves, quail or squab (a young pigeon), swans, wild turkeys and some ducks, such as mallards or wood ducks. Only a few species of pheasants, partridges and quail are raised as flight-ready birds; an incredible number of species and variants are raised for the “decorative pet” exhibit or hobby market.
Hunting reserves and state-owned preserves purchase flight birds for stocking and wildlife release. There are also markets for hatched chicks, sold to other game bird producers. If you plan to be in the meat or specialty product business, it is important to identify and understand the targeted market for the birds or bird products that you plan to produce prior to obtaining any stock.
On the West Coast of the United States, native quail species, decimated by habitat loss, are produced for reintroduction by bird lovers and sporting organizations. In the Midwest, pheasant and chukar partridge growers can make a profit by supplying grown birds to outdoor sporting clubs for recreation, as well as frozen birds to restaurants. There even is a niche market of those consumers who purchase farm-raised game-bird eggs as an alternative to large-scale, commercially produced chicken eggs. Pickled quail eggs, canned or frozen smoked pheasant, and duck for Asian-American cuisine are increasing in popularity as gourmet specialty items.
Markets demand various sizes, weights and ages of birds for specific products. The key markets for meat game birds are whole birds, cut-up birds, cuts (breasts, legs), and specialized gourmet-type products, such as sausages, fresh or pickled eggs. Specialty items may be sold in gourmet stores, direct to consumers or coordinated through a specialty meat broker.
Today’s consumers are increasingly conscious of diet and the composition of foods. Game bird meat is ideally suited to respond to the desire for healthy foods. Compared to other meats, game birds are high in protein and low in fat, quail for example is very high in iron. While the meat will continue to be a specialty item, the game bird industry can increase its niche market by diversification. If the whole industry--hatcheries, producers and processors--is prepared to maintain high quality standards and further develop its processing sector and exports, then this industry has as much more potential than most other meat industries today.
If you plan to be in the meat or specialty product business, it also is important to the processing of game birds requires an understanding of the regulations surrounding approved slaughter facilities and state and federal laws. There are no commercial quality standards for pheasants marketed as dressed birds. However, it is not unusual for buyers of the dressed product to have specific preferences. Additionally, having in-house food-safety “best practices” protocols are extremely important for negating potential product-quality or contamination liability problems.
The game bird industry in the United States produces millions of birds for sale to restaurants and for direct marketing to consumers. The number of birds in the United States is estimated at around 10-million pheasants, 37-million quail, 4-million chukar partridges, 1-million mallard ducks, 200-thousand wild turkeys and several other bird species.
The game bird breeding business is relatively new, and anyone interested in it should acquire as much information as possible prior to any financial commitment. Much of the early rearing and processing information was adapted from the domestic poultry industry. Their experience and knowledge regarding incubation, brooding, management and disease control, and market development continue to be valuable assets to the game bird industry. Those producing game birds can learn from the experience of others by contacting cooperative producers and trade associations. Some state extension services, e.g., Wisconsin, regularly offer game bird workshops that bring in established private-sector production professionals, disease specialists and local- and specialty-foods marketing people.
The production of game birds requires specialized housing, netting or fencing systems; specific knowledge in the diseases common to game birds; and an identified market. Game bird production can take the form of “flight-ready” birds for release programs (where the birds are for sale to state game departments, private individuals or shooting preserves); an “exotic bird” business for the pet trade (pea fowl, guinea hens); or as a domestic poultry business specializing in gourmet table fare or ethnic specialties (pheasants, quail, duck). This is a business that can be started with minimal investment; for instance, raising exotic quail and non-game pheasant species for homeowners and hobbyists can be a profitable side business. In some areas, production of game birds requires specialized permits and licenses; in others, only sales-tax registration is necessary to conduct business.
The concept of game bird shooting preserves, where game to be hunted is reared in confinement and released for recreational hunting, originated in Europe and Great Britain and spread to this country after 1900. Interest in shooting preserves has steadily grown in recent years, largely because of the increased difficulty of gaining public access to private lands for hunting and because of increased interest in recreational hunting and shooting opportunities, particularly near urban areas. Some facilities also offer a place to participate in other recreational shooting sports, such as skeet, trap or sporting clays. In Midwestern and Plains states, preserves are often coupled with bed and breakfast lodges that form important local agritourism operations.
Additionally, these regulated hunting situations have proven to be a viable adjunct to hunting on public lands and native habitats. Particularly in the Midwest, harsh winters and cold, wet springs may severely reduce wild game bird populations. Many studies have shown that certain game birds have an annual turnover of 70 to 80 percent, due to natural environmental conditions. These studies also demonstrate that game bird populations if properly managed sustain enough reproductive capability to replace their losses. Private bird production provides state game managers birds for to augment low local populations.
Anyone starting a preserve business should examine how that business could positively impact related businesses in the local economy, build strategic partnerships where applicable and then strive to communicate the value of the business to the community.
Any hunting-preserve operation needs to be aware that “hunting” is not the primary client driver of the business venture. Most preserve operations are sustained by memberships from upland-bird enthusiasts regularly working bird dogs and attention must be paid to good working and training bird habitat, as well as strong-flying and evasive flight-ready birds.
Bird farming can have other unanticipated impacts. For example, because habitat for wild quail was diminished or destroyed by human development, hunting preserves became financially viable as a business that met the sporting needs of quail hunters and bird-dog field trial competitors. Quail and pheasant conservation groups now contribute hundreds of millions of dollars each year to purchase land for habitat reclamation, which benefits all native species and contributes to the overall diversity of our agro-ecosystems. A situation that began with habitat loss has come full circle to habitat preservation.
Helpful enterprise budgets for game bird production:
- Penn State Ag Alternatives Quail Production
- Penn State Ag Alternatives Pheasant Production
- Mississippi State Feeding Quail
- Kansas Rural Center Game Bird Raising and Hunting Enterprise Budgets
- Mississippi State Raising Bobwhite Quail for Commercial Use
- University of California Raising Game Birds
Hunter Numbers and Hunting Impact
How to Begin and Survive a Commercial Gamebird Farm, Leland Hayes.
Marketing Strategies for Farmers and Ranchers, SARE, USDA, 2006 - This tip sheet offers a variety of methods to consider indirect marketing, niche marketing or in value-added processing.
Pheasant Hunting Pumps New Life into Farming Community, The Seattle Times, 2007 - Describes the Cannonball Company formed by a group of farmers in North Dakota who are using managed pheasant hunting as a way to increase their farm revenue and protect their property.