What I'd invite you to consider today, at least hypothetically, even from a distance, is roadkill, and why it isn't as taboo or foul as it's made out to be.
Contrary to the jokes and stigma culture would have us believe, eating roadkill is completely safe with a basic knowledge of food safety, and can be a useful way to get valuable, wild harvested meat of higher quality than you can get at the store.
The Meat Gleaner
Let me clarify a bit. First, I use the word roadkill, but the word roadkill is too narrow a description, something more appropriate might be "meat gleaner", since I definitely don't limit myself to vehicular-harvested meals.
That grouse that hit the window? Dinner, after I hang it for a couple days. The rabbit the dog injured and who will die a slow, cruel death left in Nature's hands? That's Civet de Lapin.
People I spoke to on the topic who appreciate meat-finding gave me other real-world examples: a sturgeon trapped in a small pond, an injured squirrel in a trap you set for the garden rabbit, or a nutria the child brought home from school.
It's illegal to eat kill songbirds in the U.S. but if a robin hit your window, you could try your hand at Robins on Toast, said to be a favorite dish of J.D. Rockefeller. Basically, I'm an equal opportunity carnivore—as long as it's high quality and fit to eat, it's fair game.
Also, I'm talking about fresh, quality meat here, not a skunk with a tire tread through it, or some other Wile E. Cayote success story. The roadkill I will eat, and that many people around the world eat, is not the grisly, automotive butchery most people associate with the term when they see it.
Simply put, roadkill (the more P.C. term is car-kill) and all other, alternative forms of meat procurement are just different ways to fill your freezer, and it's a known (but seldom discussed) interest sub-niche in the hunting and foraging world.
To me, it's just another way to waste less, get free food, and exercise a different part of my skillset, another merit-badge on the never-ending foraging sash, so to speak. Good food, is good food, no matter how it was harvested.
Cold Season=roadkill season
The way I see it, just like mushrooms, greens, nuts and fruit, roadkill has a particular season, at least for me. Once the temperatures drop, I often use the natural fridge outside the kitchen door.
A refrigerator doesn't chill things as much as it's an appliance that holds a specific temperature, the great outdoors in the peak of a midwestern winter is a blast-chiller though, capable of cooling the even hottest faster than the coldest walk-in cooler could ever dream.
Timing is crucial. Just like other wild foods, there's a window of prime edibility with car-kill animals, but a deer hit by a car in the winter, immediately chilled by the elements, is no different than a slice of meat from the store.
In fact, chilled at that stage it would be far more fresh than the pre-cut steaks in the butchers counter, especially the ones augmented with oxygen to keep them red and hide their age.
At the end of the day, in my world, roadkill, in all it's different shades is just a different way to find free food, and coexists alongside the same edible scavenger hunt the mushroom and plant hunter in me knows and loves.
I can hear people saying still "Nope nope nope!" "That's crazy, you'll get sick!" or "It's not safe!", and I get it, but bear with me for a moment. Besides blind trust, how do we know the food from the store is safe? We don't.
Outbreaks of stuff like Ecoli and Salmonella happen so regularly we're immune to noticing. Food is food, and you'll get sick from eating rotten potatoes or leftover/past prime mushrooms just as fast as meat.
That being said, I'd argue that tainted vegetables or lettuce are even more insidious than spoiled meat. A perfectly ripe leaf of lettuce tainted with Ecoli isn't something you can discern with any of your senses, but, if you discover spoiled meat, trust me, you will know.
How do you know it's ok to eat?
Instinct and experience comes into play, along with some luck of the draw. It's possible for a roadkill deer to be fresher than meat from your local butcher shop, it's also possible for it to be in, rough shape.
The benefit is that roadkill deer have a lot of meat on them, and if you have to toss the 15 pounds of meat on the front quarters and keep only the back legs, loins/backstraps, breast and whatever else, you're still coming out on top. By contrast, the birds I've taken off the road have just had broken necks, maybe some bruising.
In a perfect world, the animal is only a few hours old, even still warm. If there's anything that makes me question if it would be a good meal, I pass.
Personal preferences vary though. I have one friend who told me he harvested a roadkill turkey, noticed half of it was sour, discarded the bad half, and ate the rest. Obviously, something like that takes a certain type of....constitution. Eat what feels good to you, and trust in your senses and instincts.
Inspect the carcass
Flex your forensic culinary muscles with a game of Burger She Wrote. Can you tell how the animal died? A great thing to look at is the neck, since, if broken, it probably meant a quick death, and it could be possible the rest of the animal is undamaged.
With poultry and small animals, if they're not frozen, it's pretty easy to feel them and see what happened.
With deer, I'd inspect them much more than fowl or other animals for signs of malnourishment if you can before you claim them bony, gaunt features, or other things that make a deer look sick could be signs of C.W.D. and it's a good idea to get them tested if you live in an C.W.D. area.
Butcher using the gut-less method
With deer, you might consider skinning the carcass starting with the back where the loins, backstraps are. Cut the skin along the spine, opening it up like a book.
From there, remove the backstraps, and if you can/want, further articulate with a knife to remove the front and back quarters, leaving the gut bag where it is.
Finding the harvest
Locating car-kill animals and the like, and just being aware of the possibility of free meat can be half the fun. There's a number of tools at your disposal here, and if you have anymore to add, please chime in.
Get put on a call list
Call your local Conservation Officer or Sherriff and tell them you want that sweet road meat. Local law enforcement often have call lists for people interested in harvesting car-kill deer.
This is probably one of the best ways to get to an accident as soon as possible for the freshest harvest, just don't be surprised if you get a call at 3 a.m. for the meat raffle.
Local neighborhood groups
Google groups and communities like the popular Nextdoor App make it easy to get email notifications of all the goings-on in your area.
In Western Wisconsin, I'm on the list for a group called "Tellall", during the winter, in between people selling everything from tires to maple syrup equipment, it isn't uncommon to see posts about roadkill up for grabs, and if you post that you're in the market for a "freshy", people will give you a heads-up.
Facebook hunting groups
Facebook hunting groups are in every area of the U.S.. Interacting and searching out like-minded people in your area can help you build a network of eyes that will work for you. Meet some new friends, and make your intentions known.
A sunday drive
The old way. During the winter, I'll occasionally drive the busier road into town (not a freeway) every other day or so. After a few drives, I know what's been there, and any "new additions" will be easy to spot.
It's a good idea to know your local protocol as some species (endangered, of special concern, etc) may not be allowed. At least in Minnesota and Wisconsin, the laws state (I called officers in both states to make sure) that you need to call and get a permit for any animal you would harvest.
State patrol can give permits for deer, but you'll need to talk to a conservation officer specific to the area you're in for other animals. The officers told me experiences will vary depending on location. You may get lucky and be able to take it on the spot, or you may have to wait for a permit.
Luckily, most states seem to have maps of conservation officers you can contact for specific areas, similar to the one below for Minnesota, which is a snap to use. If you can't find a map, contact your local D.N.R..
Minnesota DNR officer patrol areas
I spoke with handful of friends who use alternative ways to gather meat as I wrote this, and the personal, real-world experiences I've been told about are fascinating. If you have any experiences to add here: be they odd, delicious, cautionary or anything else, please leave a comment and join the conversation.
I dated a guy who was a fan of road kill, so I've been harvesting this form of meat for over 20 yrs. One day I drive to the grocery and picked up two roadkill squirrels on my way home. I'm always disappointed when I see a good RK but am on my way to an appt or activity that will last hours or an entire day, so I habe to let it lay. I know I have probably let some good meat go to waste when I wasn't sure, so I appreciate some of the tips and advice in this article.
Thanks Hannah. I thought it would be fun to try and explain my views, but I'm almost more interested now in reading all the personal stories that are coming in (I'm trying to get people to post here instead of sending emails so more people can read them). It's just great.
I freely admit that if I hit something with my car, it's likely to go on the table. I used to live on a stretch of road that had a deer crossing, and I knew that if I heard squealing brakes followed by a loud thump, it was time to go check on the driver, then get my butchering tools out. The drivers and responding sheriffs were only too happy to have me drag the carcass off the road.
Thanks Jane. I can just about imagine the anticipation coming from hearing the squealing tires! Fresh as can be!
I have harvested several deer that have been hit by cars. We have a stretch of road very close to my home that is a major deer crossing. A couple dozen have been hit there in the ten years I have lived here. The ones I have harvested have been hit by friends or I was called by friends who saw it happen. All of the ones I salvaged had impact to the head and no damage anywhere else. It made gutting them clean and no mess. A friend of mine hit a young bull moose. It totalled his new truck but very little meat damage to the moose. At least he got a full freezer out of the deal.
Hitting a moose with a car has to be a scary ordeal. At least he got the meat!
Maybe I should clarify that it wasn't the driver for whom I needed the butchering tools?
We have been doing this for years. We always make sure to get permission/permits from area officers. We are even on a list if they have fresh animals that could be used for food. We have had road-kill pheasant, turkey, deer, bear and squirrel. It is at least a 3 generation tradition. My earliest memory of trying to make use of roadkill is when as preteens we were mortified to watch the road clean-up crew discover my mother picking quills out of a porcupine to use for a beading project. They generously shoveled it off the road for her safety while we hid in the car. Somehow this behavior is now “normal” in our family and we were recently so proud of our son for discovering a fresh road kill, notifying authorities and dressing it all by himself. Like Hannah’s comment states, it is almost depressing when you see something that could be used but lack the time to deal with it.
Thanks Autumn. I'm just loving the stories here. Using porcupine quills is another thrifty gold nugget here. I bet there's all kinds of things you could do with them.
My dad once hit a deer , people offered us cash right on the spot for it . My dad got$2000 that night . The local sheriff at the time deemed it legal . Another time my step grandmother hit a moose and just stood there and continued to eat like nothing happened. Crazy.
I once brought a roadkill rabbit back to the apartment. It was 5 below that day, and it hadn't frozen stiff so I was ecstatic for some freshest of meat. Even better, when I brought it inside, fleas started jumping for it – they would have frozen and died if the rabbit had cooled to anywhere close to ambient temperatures, so I knew I had come across it only minutes after its demise. My housemates were not so thrilled at the fleas.
After some tentative sips though they devoured rabbit stew.
Ha! Yeah the first time I saw fleas jumping from a rabbit it gave me pause, nothing a good skinning won't fix though. Reminds me of a story too. I have a friend who used to live in a hunting cabin. He had a real mouse problem, so he allowed a family of weasels to live in the house with him. The mouse problem became a non-issue, but eventually he came to realize that the weasels were harbingers of a type of pure white wood tick (I'm unsure of the species or if it's albino, etc). Eventually things culminated in him running around the cabin with a broom handle trying to whack them, and he assures me that weasels definitely make an audible, vocal "POP" sound (not from being squished). When he came down to dispatching the last weasel, he knew it was sitting in a large, opened book. He slammed the book shut on it, literally, and figuratively. A literary mess. LOL
That's hilarious! Thanks for the story.
I'm a retired firefighter. Years ago we had a medical emergency call for a bicyclist down on a country rd. We found a man down with his bike further up a steep hill. He was in bad shape with a concussion. We rendered aid and he was taken to the hospital. Before leaving the scene we were curious about why he crashed. We saw some feathers on the road and looked down in a nearby ravine and there was a freshly dead turkey. Mystery solved, the speeding bicyclist had run into this bird causing the crash. I told the probie (new guy) firefighter to go get it and cook it for dinner. He did and we had Thanksgiving dinner complete with all the fixing... in July!
Sounds like a great Thanksgiving. Thanks Ed.
Your contents is great! I have been curious about this and it made me go search for my state laws. Now I gotta go find some road kill and become a “meat gleaner. “ Up to now I have limited it to taking some tails to harvest hair for art brushes.
Excellent article! I remember as a kid, my family driving up on a car that had just hit a deer on a winding canyon road. They were thankful that my dad was able to quickly dispatch the suffering, slowly dying deer. My parents were excited that we were able to harvest about half the deer in excellent, unharmed meat. We ate that game for the rest of the year. I've always winced at roadkilled animals being left on the roadside, I wish more people were open to eating what could essentially be sold as "Wild-Harvested, Free-Range Organic Venson" if it was packaged for Whole Foods.
With a husband who is a very picky eater, I don't get to eat as much game as I would like these days, but I still harvest road-killed birds for feathers, and even had a friend overnight-ship an owl they hit. They packed it on ice and sent it a couple thousand miles so that its beauty wouldn't go to waste!
This is great Lorraine, thanks for sharing.
Oh happy memories of a road kill grouse stir-fry from days of yore! We watched as the bird flew up and hit the windshield of the car traveling in front of us. Our vehicle screeched to a stop and one of our crew jumped out and gutted it on the spot. Fresh as fresh can be and, as you pointed out, no shot to deal with. Left the entrails for the local scavengers. In more recent years, we've been the fortunate (and grateful) recipients of car-kill moose roast and bear steaks from relatives who serve on a remote MN volunteer fire department and are on the “call list” for such events. Moose, that’s a dangerous collision though, to be sure. Often as bad for the driver as for the moose...
Thanks Suzanne, grouse is a common theme here, and we've had some hit our windows. When a farm inspector came by the other day they saw me hanging them from a tree and, of course, gave me the "this guy's a weirdo" look. Par for the course. I need to make friends with some people on that bear list.
Alaska has a sign-up sheet for roadkill moose - and it is long!! The only problem is that, as you say, the calls tend to come at 3:00a.m., and on the most uncomfortable, stormy nights. Butchering a moose is a big deal and most folks have a butchering partner lined up to help with the task - and to share the meat.
Fresh Roadkill Racoon made most excellent spareribs. They are amazingly fatty for a wild creature. Tasted awesome.
I haven't eaten racoon yet, good on ya Steven.
The only thing that gives me pause, at least with bumper-battered bambi, is the knowledge that if you don't field-dress a deer pretty soon after it dies, there is enough heat in the gut to make it bloat, even if the outdoor temperature is below freezing. That's got to be a pretty unpleasant gutting job, and I also hear that it (not getting the field dressing done quickly) is what makes game "gamey" (although the animal's diet can do that too). And isn't it hard to deal with the butchering if the animal isn't hung before rigor mortis sets in? I'm pretty new at this, so please, tell me what I need to know here.
Hey Carla. I've butchered plenty of animals without hanging them first (for various reasons). Besides the additional water content of the meat that you can reduce from hanging and drying, it's not a huge deal, but I definitely prefer to hang meat. As far as the bloating, cold weather, and getting to a carcass asap are the goal. I've only cut up a couple car kill deer, (gutted on the spot by others who bring them to me) and thankfully neither of them had bone sour or similar problems. Of course, each case will vary, and some will be more difficult than others depending on the trauma. The good part is that you can be choosy. One person I spoke to said she just takes the backstraps of what she finds, since the front and back joints are where the bad bacteria would move into first in cases like that. I'd assume it is a bigger deal with the large cervids like moose and elk. If you get there as quick as you can, and it's below freezing it would be ideal. Having it thaw, freeze, thaw, and freeze, with the temp getting above freezing in the day could pose an issue, I'd assume.
I picked up a very freshly killed (still crawling with deer kids and ticks kind of fresh) roe deer a couple of years ago and left her in my trunk over night on a night when it was hovering around freezing. In the morning she was, indeed, bloated from those gut bacteria working overtime, but the butchering was not a problem. I hung her by her hind legs from a tree in the back garden and just got on with it.
That was supposed to be "deer keds". The autocorrect got me.
Alan, you think like I do, and it is great to read this. My wife and I have enjoyed the meat from numerous road-killed deer (and some other animals) over the years. Like you, we know what season of the year to look for them (late Fall and winter, typically), and how to inspect an animal to determine if it is suitable for consumption or not. We've also harvested grouse that had flown into buildings or vehicles. A lot of people would never consider doing something like this, yet they are happy to buy "mystery meat" from the grocery store, that is almost certainly not as healthy (or tasty) as the wild meat we harvest locally. In Michigan, the DNR now has a way to simply report the location of a road-killed deer to them on your cell phone, and get an instant permit to take it home, so there is no more waiting around for an office to show up and issue a permit. People can make fun of road kill if they wish to do so, but we are the ones enjoying some fabulous meals from the wild meat we are able to collect right near our house, at no cost and minimal effort.
Rob, thanks for the updated info for MI here, that's great. When I spoke to the DNR in WI and MN about this I couldn't help but think it would be simple to create a simple online database or something of the like for people to post locations. Would be a really great tool, especially as a number of people have mentioned preferences being taken with their local call lists.
Loved seeing this topic. I've scavenged Grouse with a damaged wing that could partially fly. I chased it into the shrubbery, and was eventually was able to grab the bird. Ate it with my vegetireanc girlfriend, grilled at high heat with salt and an aged white burgundy. We both felt it was maybe the best bird meal of our lives.
Almost 50 years ago...coming home from backpacking in the Sierra Nevada in 100 degrees plus - we hit a rattlesnake leaving the wilderness. Father was quite excited - mother was not. Seven people in a station wagon with no A/C...it was a long way home and it was hot. We stopped half way home to take a break and Mother tossed that stinky rattlesnake away when Father was not watching! Hilarious; took me another 2 years to get some rattlesnake on board.
Thanks Peg, I really enjoy deep fried rattlesnake. Brings back memories of eating at this old wild west themed park called Rawhide in AZ when I was a kid with my grandparents.
Everybody reading this probably already knows this, but a good rule of thumb for smaller animals (rodents, rabbits, birds...) is whether their eyes are still shiny or not. If they are, even if a bit sunken, you're good to go. It they are not the meat might still be fine, but you need to check more carefully.
We use summertime roadkill, even funky stuff, all the time. We have a "maggot bucket" hanging in the chicken yard--a 5 gallon plastic bucket with holes drilled into the bottom. Kinda stinky but it's free protein for the flock. They hang around just waiting for the maggots to fall through the holes.
Gotta hand it to you Mindy, a bucket full of roadkill for the chickens is one of the most creative things I've heard of in a long time. If I could give you an award here, I would. Thanks for sharing.
I have picked up some road killed pheasants over the years. One time I came across a friend of mine parked on the shoulder picking up the grill of his car. He taid he had hit a pehasant and it ran into the bean field. I went home and got my dog and went back there andshe caught the pheasant for me as it couldn't fly. I have since learned from a taxidermist that in Mn it is illegal to pick up any road kill without a game wardens ok.
One year, many years ago, my now ex-wife got more deer during Mississippi deer season than i did. I got one, she got 4.... all with her Chevy Citation!!! Lots of auto repair bills that year, but we had plenty of meat!! ..🤷🏼♂️
Wow Chuck 4 deer with one car is a serious feat!
Where I live (Utah) a few years ago, during the winter a train took out at least a dozen elk. It was a complete mess with fire trucks and the whole bit, and those of us who were on the call list are like kings for a good long time. BIG mess though.
Fantastic post! The best read I have had in a while!
We touched base on the topic in an episode of our tv series...we found and cooked a wild turkey. It was the best turkey I have had my some measure.
Loving the content you are producing!
Thanks Paul. What's your show?
Unfortunately the only fresh car-kill meal I've come close to reaping (grouse) was nabbed by the barn cat that snuck into the garage while we planned our meal around it and had it half-gone by the time we'd settled on a side. To be fair we ate the grouse the cat had caught and killed out of our crab apple tree off the front porch the week before...wilderness karma self-sorted!
Carol Ruckdeschel's subsistence life on Cumberland Island off the coast of Georgia is detailed in "Untamed: The Wildest Woman in America and the Fight for Cumberland Island" by Will Harlan. Much of the protein in her diet is road kill.
A new one for me! I'll have to look it up.
Let me double the recommendation for reading Will Harlan's book about Carol Ruckdeschel - inspiring! As I type, I am in a state of post-prandial bliss following a dinner of road-kill fox squirrel with porcini Stroganoff. This is just the 2nd road-kill I've cooked, but fox squirrels are SO delicious. And yes, if you trust your senses to tell you whether or not the animal is fresh, you'll be fine. Because squirrel is such a well-exercised meat, I like to give it ample time in the pressure cooker, and de-bone it before proceeding. That treatment also kills any potential parasites.
Great article Alan! Doubled my meat in freezer with a nice roadkill buck. Turned a lot of into ground. Got me thinking that 8 should be keeping my eyes open for more fresh kill. Got half a turkey the same way in the spring! Keep up the good work. Great to hear I'm not the only one that's picking up meals off the side of the road
Thanks Nick. Yeah I've been thinking for a while it would be good to share my opinion here. Meat is meat.
I can't say that I have personal experience with road kill. But I do have a story to share. For 8 years (prior to COVID!) I cooked 3 meals a day for a week for a camp held in the Allegheny mountain of West Virginia - 100 people of all ages from babies to grand-parents, in fact, families going to camp together (Needless to say a wide variety of diet requirements and restrictions!). On the day before the camp actually started, when all the staff arrived, ones of the workshop leaders went for a run along the road (a US highway, but still only a 2 lane). He came back from his run and sought me out in the kitchen, saying there was a road kill deer on the road, and would I cook it for the camp? All kinds of bells went off in my head: how long ago was that deer killed (this was JUNE after all)? was he going to butcher it? (was not going to be me.... for many reasons) I mean it's one thing to eat it myself, another thing to prepare it for others in a camp setting. So I said, that if he was confident it was fresh and edible, if he was going to butcher it and cut it, I would make room in the walk-in for it. He could cook it or work with volunteers to cook it and I would give him room/time in the kitchen. Then we could offer it to the campers as part of one (or several meals) with full disclosure on where it came from. He later came back saying one of the locals claimed it. I never knew if that was true or if he decided to back out. After all, we were both busy with our existing work load without having to add to it...
A large whitetail buck showed up in my back yard in Washington DC - dead with back leg badly broken. I saw him on my way to work yesterday AM. I'm wondering if there is a way to safely get some meat- and possibly remove the head for a European mount ( guiltless trophy). I have never handled a carcass before and not sure what I'm getting into. Any advice? Then I have to then get rid of the rest of it. Maybe it's too late?
If it's in your backyard I'd assume it's very fresh. I would probably eat it, or at least the choice parts not damaged from the injury. For the butchery you will definitely want some help from a hunter-reach out to your friends and offer to share the meat! I got a roadkill buck last year and got a great yield off of it.