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Upland Game Identification

A Basic Guide for Aging and Sexing the Bird in Your Hand

Photo of young hunters

Some Basics


This guide covers all six species of non-migratory game birds in North Dakota — ring-necked pheasant, sharp-tailed grouse, Hungarian partridge, ruffed grouse, sage grouse and wild turkey. Certain indicators of age apply to most of these species… most of the time.

But the indicators may change as the season goes on. Jerry Kobriger, upland game management supervisor for the Game and Fish Department, says it's usually easier to separate juveniles from adults in September than it is in November, when all feathers are usually done growing.

For all species except pheasant, the key to age is hidden in the wing, specifically the outer three large feathers, called primaries. For identification purposes, these feathers are numbered. The outermost primary is number 10, the next one in is nine, the third one is eight, and so on. Each species has 10 primary feathers.

Photo of an upland game bird wing
For all our upland game species except pheasants, the key to determining whether the bird is an adult or young-of-the-year is the appearance of the outer three primary wing feathers. The outermost large wing feather is numbered 10. The next one in is number nine, the next one is eight, and so on. While this is a sharptail wing, the numbers of the feathers are the same for all species.

A good general rule for determining age, Kobriger says, is to look at the underside of the number nine and 10 primaries. Pull back some of the small cover feathers so you can see the "quill" part of the primary feather. If the quill part is blue and soft, that indicates the feather is still growing.

Photo of an upland game bird wing
This photo shows the underside of a sage grouse wing. You can judge this bird as an adult, because the ninth and 10th primaries are still growing, as evidenced by the blueish "quill" section. If the eighth or seventh primaries look like the feathers in this photo, and the ninth and 10th primaries are not growing, the bird is a juvenile. These characteristics apply to all uplands species except pheasant.

Later in the season, when all feathers are completely grown, the "quill" part of the outer primaries will be white and hard. When this occurs, gauging the appearance of the outer three primaries will tell you if the bird is a juvenile or adult.

"If the outer two feathers (number nine and 10) are still growing," Kobriger says, "then it's an adult." On the other hand, if the number eight and/or seven primaries are still growing, then the bird is likely a juvenile.

When wing primaries are fully grown, the quill part becomes hard and white or light gray. "Then you have to look at the wear and contour between eight and nine and 10," Kobriger says.

Photo of an upland game bird wing
This photo shows the outer three primaries of an adult sage grouse. Note the rounded tips and smooth edges. Adults of all upland species as well as fully-molted juvenile pheasants, exhibit the same characteristics -- rounded feather tips and smooth edges.

To check the wear of the outer primaries, look at the top-side of the wing. If the ends of the outer two feathers are somewhat rounded and smooth, then the bird is likely an adult. If the ends are more pointed and frayed, the bird is likely a juvenile.

Photo of an upland game bird wing
The outer three primareis shown here are attached to the wing of a juvenile sage grouse. Note the pointedness and frayed edges on the eighth and ninth primaries. These characteristics are the same for juveniles of all upland species except pheasants.

Also note the specks and more mottled coloring of the juvenile wing, compared to the adult. Refer to these pictures when you get to the sage grouse section.

This rule applies to all birds covered here, except pheasants. Whether a rooster pheasant is an adult or juvenile is determined by the length and appearance of the spur between the foot and knee.

Sex determination is different for each species. For pheasants, the difference is obvious. For sharptails, key indicators are coloration of the central two tail feathers and the feathers on the top of the head. For Huns, it's the feather coloration on the shoulder of the wing, and for turkey it's the color pattern of the breast feathers. The sex of a ruffed grouse is best determined by the length of the central two tail feathers, while sage grouse are sexed by the color pattern of the feathers under the tail.

Just a few feathers and part of a wing or foot is all it takes for Game and Fish upland game biologists to know the age and sex of a harvested bird. You'll have the whole bird. It should be easy, right?

The following sections contain text and photos that should provide basic knowledge of upland game identification. Have it handy when you clean your birds. It will help you learn more about the birds you bagged. If you use it enough, you may reach a point where you no longer need it.

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