Problems With Plucking and Pin Feathers on Your Chicken? Improve Your Processing Technique For Faster Results

Roasting chicken in a pan
(Photo by Jonathan Cooper on Unsplash)

How to go from feathered to plucked in about 60 seconds!

There is no question that processing your own birds comes with a learning curve and a couple of seriously challenging hurdles.  If you have gotten over the part about having to kill a bird you have raised, then the next challenge is to create a clean bird worthy of the table.  Sometimes that is just easier said than done.

When I first started preparing my own birds, I would sometimes get a bird that plucked perfectly in just minutes.  Other times, I could spend upwards of an hour pulling feathers and worrying after pin feathers, only to end up disappointed by the results.  The skin was pulled and puckered and pock-marked from the effort. 

The frustration of struggling to pull out all those stuck feathers was nearly enough to make me give up altogether.  A clean pluck vs a difficult pluck seemed random to me at first. 

Feathers vs the machine

I was quick to blame my plucking machine for my woes. 

I bought myself a Yardbird plucker to make the job go faster, or so I thought.  But I was getting totally inconsistent results.  Sometimes I would put a bird into the machine and it plucked quickly and easily.  Other times I could spin and spin and spin a bird and it would still have half its feathers left on.  What the heck?  I was pretty frustrated!  This was the machine right?

I tried adjusting how level the machine was. 

I tried plucking two birds together thinking this might improve the spin and bounce. 

I tried to see if it was one particular breed of chicken causing me grief. 

Or was it the size of my birds? Too big?  Too small?  

My results were just all over the board.  Some birds plucked in just second and others . . . .well, they were just a complete nightmare.  Honestly I was ready to give up several times. 

Then I created a plan . . . .

After a particularly frustrating morning of poorly plucked birds, I suddenly had a bird that plucked perfectly!  This just could not be a coincidence. 

As I puzzled over what had gone right, and seriously NOTHING had been going right all morning, I decided there was more to this plucking story. Why was this bird different from all the rest?

I decided that I would keep closer track of my steps and see if perhaps the random factor in the plucking equation was me, instead of the birds or the machine.

I started to notice some patterns of when a bird plucked well.  The first bird was plucking better than the second or third when I was doing a few birds one after another.  Or it was the next bird after I had taken a break. Breed didn’t matter.  Size didn’t matter.  So what was going on?

The lightbulb moment!

After just a few short tries to narrow down the culprit (and a good thermometer), it became crystal clear that the difference between an easy-to-pluck bird and a nightmare is ALL about the scalding! 

It felt like a eureka moment, when suddenly, one bird after another, and after another, I could consistently get near perfect results.  EVERY time! 

I’ve never had another problem plucking birds ever since.

So how do you get these same results? 

I have learned to scald birds in a way that they consistently pluck clean in about 60 seconds using my Yardbird plucker.  Go Yardbird!  

In fact, that Yardbird is one of the best machines I have ever bought for the farm because it is easy to operate and brilliantly designed so it is also easy to clean!  But even if you are plucking by hand or using some other machine, this technique for scalding is going to save you a lot of time and effort and give you better results.

The following steps are your ticket to this easy plucking scenario. Keep in mind that you will likely have to adjust this to accommodate your specific equipment, but I have some tips on how to best approach that.

Step 1: Prepare your water

My set up is extremely simple.  I use a single portable electric burner set on a brick.  I place a 33-quart enamel canner on the burner filled to the line with warm water.  I set the burner on medium-high and put the lid on.  Depending on my starting temperature it can take quite a while to reach the target temperature.  I just finish the rest of my set-up while waiting for the water. 

electric cooktop for heating the scalding water
A simple portable electric cooktop with a canning kettle can make a good scalder (Photo: Rose Hill Farm)

Step 2:  Get the temperature right

You do not want to boil the water.  THIS IS CRITICAL! 

The right scalding temperature is between 155 F (68 C), but you can get good results from about 150 to 160 F (65.6 to 71 C). The absolute lowest temperature I scald at is 145 F (62.8 C) but it takes longer to loosen feathers and the result can be damaged skin.  It takes too long.  Any lower and the bird is in the water far too long and it seriously effects your results and makes the bird hard to pluck.  You just cannot make up for loosening feathers by keeping it water that is too cold for longer.  The plucking goes poorly.

Higher than 155 F and you have to go a little faster so you don’t end up with skin that tears while you are plucking.  I still get good results with temperatures of 160 F and even 162 F, but you have to go faster.

The most consistent results come at 155 F.

Tools for plucking chickens - large kettle can act like a scalder
Bring the water up to 155 F (68 C) (Photo: Rose Hill Farm)

Step 3:  Figure out your timing

Next to temperature, your technique for dipping the bird can make or break your results. 

To consistently get a clean finish, I do the following:

  • Tie a cord around both the feet, using a simple slip knot, so that you can easily lift the bird by its feet, but also totally submerge the bird while maintaining control with the cord.
  • Have something to stir and poke the bird down with – I use a 20” (51 cm) piece of 3/4″ (1.9 cm) PVC tube which works great!
  • Holding the cord so the bird is hanging down, lower the bird into the scalding water.  I start with the bird on its left side in the water and as soon as the bird is in the water I begin counting.  1-2-3 . . .
  • I count to 12 while gently stirring the bird on its side in the water (rocking it back and forth, agitating, moving it).  I push the bird down into the water, at the shoulder, at the feet, back and forth.
  • When I hit 13, I left the bird by the cord enough to flip it over and keep counting.  Now the right side is down in the water and keep poking and stirring it.  Make sure the feet get in.  I continue to count up to 24 – 30 depending on the size of the bird.
  • At a count of 30, I change techniques.  I pull the bird up using the cord, all the way out of the water, and then dip the bird back into the pot, submerge it and lift it all the way back out again.  This forces the water through all the feathers.  I repeat the dipping for up 8 to 10 times (depends on the size of the bird) to really flush the water through the feathers.  This step seems quite critical to a good pluck.  When I don’t dip and flush the water through, the results are not the same.
  • As soon as I am done dipping, I rest the bird on the pot lid (to keep it off the ground) and I test the scald.  To accurate test, take a single wing feather and see if it pulls out easily.  It should just come loose with only slight pressure.   If yes, then test a single tail feather.  If you have done a good scalding job, these feathers just pop out with no effort.  If not – return the bird for 2-5 more dips in the water (don’t re-soak it).  Then do the single feather pull-test again.
Tools for plucking chickens - plucker - scalder- table - ice chest
Simple plucking station set up (Photo: Rose Hill Farm)

Step 4:  Immediately pluck

As soon as I can pull a wing feather easily, I start the Yardbird spinning, remove the cord from the bird’s feet so it doesn’t tangle up in the machine and drop the bird in. 

I let it spin until it is about half plucked before I use a hose to spray water in the machine.  Although my Yardbird comes with a hose ring that will spray water, I simply use a garden hose with a spray nozzle to do add water myself.  This is just my personal preference and it lets me control the timing of the water. 

I spray down the bird while it finishes spinning clean.  It rarely takes more than 60 seconds and the bird comes out nice and clean.

Step 5: Finish plucking by hand

There is typically only a handful of feathers or pin feathers left to deal with using this technique.  I usually just quickly pull these by hand.

Step 6:  Plunge into cold water until you start butchering

As soon as the feathers are off, it is critically important to get the cleaned carcass into a cold water bath to stop any further heat from the scald and to lower the bird’s core temperature. 

Even if you are only doing one bird at a time, it is important to plunge the bird into cold water and stop the scald heat entirely before moving forward.

If you just leave the bird to sit, the internal temperature of the bird plus the heat gained from scalding can affect the quality of your results and could lead to a build-up of harmful bacteria. 

I usually only process two birds at a time so that I can rapidly take the cleaned birds through the rest of the butchering process and have them finished and cooling in an ice chest as fast as possible. I use a large stainless steel bowl filled with cold water to quickly cool the birds until they are processed. Working alone, it takes me 15 minutes or less to go from a live bird to one fully prepared and chilling in the ice chest waiting to be wrapped.

Now It’s Your Turn: Refine your own process

Before I learned to (a) get the scalding temperature right and (b) count out my soaking time and dipping time, I struggled with wildly inconsistent plucking results.  Now I get a nearly perfect pluck on every bird!  It makes a huge difference to how much work there is in getting this difficult farm job done.

Your equipment and set up might be different from mine, but you can modify my approach to find the exact temperature and timing that works best for you.  To modify this, you simply need to:

  • Use a thermometer to get the scalding temperature exactly right.
  • Experiment with different counts for putting the bird in, flipping it over, and the number of times you dip.
  • Test your results by pulling on a single wing feather and a single tail feather. The should require no effort to pull.
  • MOST IMPORTANTLY: Remember to recheck your scalding temperature after every bird or two.  Failing to keep the scalding temperature within the necessary range is a major cause of hard to pluck birds. 
  • Keep in mind that a small young bird will require less scalding time than a big old rooster.  This comes with experience.
  • Also, the hotter the temperature, the shorter time you should soak and the fewer dips you need.  But too hot will damage the skin and cause tearing.

Does it work for ducks?

The jury is still out on whether this works the same for ducks or not.  I only had two ducks to process this year.  On the first one I had the temperature right and, although there were still a lot of feathers when it came out of the plucker, they were easy to pull.  On the second (forgot to recheck my water!?!?!), it was a nightmare. 

So I need to follow the same kind of procedure for the ducks and see if I can get down to a perfect duck routine too.  Dipping seems more critical for the ducks because I found it really hard to get the water in through the feathers. 

Once I have tried a few more ducks I will post an updated version.  If you end up trying it with ducks before me, send a note and let me know how it worked.

Happy plucking! 

While it is difficult to face the reality of processing your meat, there are few things more satisfying than enjoying a meal that has been raised on your own farm.  Having ownership and responsibility for where your food comes from brings its own rewards. Taking the stress out of the plucking part can make a big difference in your desire to continue raising your own birds for the table.  A systematic approach for improving your scalding technique can make all the difference in your results and your attitude.  Give it a try!

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