9 alternative birds you can cook for Thanksgiving instead of turkey

Turkey doesn't have to rule the roost at your holiday feast.

Credit: GettyImages / LanaSweet
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Turkey is without a doubt the traditional Thanksgiving bird, and one of the iconic symbols of the United States. But it's far from the only fowl you can serve the guests at your big Thanksgiving bash, and far from the tastiest.

There are plenty of reasons to try out a turkey alternative. Maybe you're planning a smaller dinner and don't need a mountain of meat. Maybe you simply don't love the stuff, like the ever-adorable Zooey Deschanel. Or maybe you just feel like you're stuck in a rut.

Why settle? Get a little outside your comfort zone and try one of the many varieties of birdflesh that planet Earth has to offer.

Goose

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Geese look just as majestic on the plate. [Credit: Wikimedia Commons, "Alan D. Wilson"]

Christmas ham (or Hannukkah ham, for the secular Jews among us) may have bumped goose as the late-December holiday staple, but there's no reason goose can't replace Thanksgiving turkey.

It's much richer thanks to a thicker layer of subdermal fat, but that means it's also more flavorful and less prone to drying out. (There's so much fat, in fact, that most recipes recommend pricking the bird's skin to let the juice out during cooking.) Some say goose meat tastes quite a bit like well done roast beef. Similar to duck, this waterfowl's meat is dark and juicy, but it's still technically "white meat."

Suggested Recipe: Since it's been a popular bird since time immemorial, goose recipes aren't hard to find. That said, we really like Emeril's saucy take on a roast port-glazed goose with tawny port gravy. Another that caught our eye is this peppercorn and thyme–roasted goose by dearly departed Chicago chef Charlie Trotter.

Cornish Game Hen

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Cornish game hens are neither game birds, nor always hens. Discuss. [Credit: Flickr user "Charkrem"]

When presented with a Cornish game hen, Frank Costanza famously asked, "What is that? Like a little chicken?"

Though he was corrected at the time, Frank is actually right on the mark here. The "game" hen is not hunted as a game bird, but is in fact a hybrid chicken raised on farms like other chickens. Since it's usually sold whole, this little morsel is a perfect substitute for a couple looking for a cozy Thanksgiving away from the extended family.

Suggested Recipe: This simple roasted preparation from A Spicy Perspective uses thyme, rosemary, and garlic to give these little birds a delicious kick.

Duck

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This extremely French way of cooking duck is not recommended for Thanksgiving. Note the fois gras on top of the meat. [Credit: Wikimedia Commons, "PierreSelim"]

Unlike most of the other birds in this list, duck can be prepared in a huge variety of ways. Fois gras, the most ethically questionable Thanksgiving poultry substitute on this list, is probably the most luxurious option for the alt Thanksgiving crowd. Duck fois gras (fois gras de canard) is slightly less expensive than the comparable goose option, but both include the emotional baggage of having been part of a force-feeding process many consider cruel.

If you prefer your ducks un-force-fed, a good duck breast is richer and darker than turkey. Like goose and other aquaphilic fowl, it has a hefty layer of fat that provides both flavor and a rich consistency. (Just make sure you don't buy a magret—a breast from a force-fed Barbary duck.) You can also try some more advanced preparations, from duck confit to duck meatloaf.

Suggested Recipe: If you're looking to cook a roast duck, this step-by-step guide from The Hungry Mouse is the only thing you need. (Aside from the ingredients, of course.)

Pheasant

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Pheasant is pleasant. [Credit: Flickr user "lricharz"]

Yes, you can buy pheasants.

But let's be real: To get that ultimate sense of self-satisfaction, you really need a photo of yourself holding a brace of them, shotgun at your side, beaming with pride. Regardless of how you actually come by them, when you serve your Thanksgiving guests a meat as unusual as pheasant, you'd better have a good story to tell.

Pheasant is a relatively low-fat meat, so many recipes suggest you "lard" the meat while it's being cooked. Essentially, this means adding extra fat to the meat to prevent it from drying out; wrapping it in bacon or pancetta seems to be the most common solution. With that taken care of, you can proceed to roast, grill, or smoke your bird, just like any other fowl.

Pheasant meat is often described as having a "unique" flavor, which of course tells you nothing at all about how it actually tastes. We suspect it's something like chicken.

Suggested Recipe: Emeril loves him some roast pheasant, and we love Emeril's recipes. Game, set, match. Here's his favorite take on roasted pheasant, complete with bacon, thyme, and a wild mushroom bread pudding on the side.

Guineafowl (Guinea Hen)

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A guineafowl poses for the paparazzi. [Credit: Flickr user "mirabelka szuszu" ]

Giving thanks across the pond? If you're in South Africa or Europe, guineafowl (also known as a guinea hens) are thick on the ground, making them a popular target for weekend hunters. Over here in the States, they're less common, but you can still find them for sale at specialty meat providers like D'Artagnan.

Due to their rarity in the U.S., they're not cheap at north of $30 for a single bird. But if you want some extra foodie cred, you'll look incredibly classy if you serve these to your guests.

Suggested Recipe: New York Magazine suggests this delectable-sounding combination of chestnut-stuffed guinea hens with rosemary-roasted fingerling potatoes. Now that's eating.

Quail

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[Credit: Flickr user "SidPix"]

Quail are quite small, meaning you can serve everyone at the Thanksgiving table their own bird. Single-serve dinners! Who doesn't love that?

Quail meat is dark and juicy, and is described as having a surprisingly delicate flavor for a game bird. If you like chicken and turkey thighs, there's a very good chance you'll love this cute little nugget.

Suggested Recipes: Both of these sounded so good, we couldn't settle on just one. Over at Eating Well, they recommend a seared, oven-roasted bird stuffed with ginger-cranberry pilaf. PBS, on the other hand, offers this Italian-style quail with apples, lemon juice, and herbs.

Pigeon (Squab)

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Though it’s served at high-end eateries, pigeon still has a stigma as a dirty bird. [Credit: Flickr user "stu_spivack"]

No, we're not suggesting you stand in Central Park with a net.

While young domestic pigeons are relatively common in high-end cuisine, they're usually referred to as "squabs." With darker meat than chickens, they're flavorful and juicy, though they can be quite annoying to eat since they're small and don't have that much meat per bird. What meat there is has a delicate texture, and should be cooked medium-rare for optimal flavor.

They're a specialty item, so they don't come cheap, but by all accounts squabs are phenomenal and totally worth trying.

Suggested Recipe: This roast squab with bacon and grapes (via Food & Wine) sounds both phenomenally delicious and easy to cook. We also love this preparation, with porcini mushrooms and a country bread salad.

Partridge

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A real partridge family enjoys a meadow. [Credit: Flickr user "Steenburgs"]

Quail too small? Pheasant too big? Try a partridge! These birds aren't native to the United States, but like most exotic meats, you can find them for sale if you look hard enough.

Partridge meat is lean and dark—quite similar to pheasant. Like other lean meats, it either needs to be cooked rare or slow-cooked for a long time to avoid becoming tough. It's described as having an "earthier" flavor than chicken, and we're told it goes exceptionally well with roasted pears.

Suggested Recipe: Jaime Oliver's recipe for pan-fried partridge with a French-style pearl barley, pea, and lettuce stew sounds phenomenal to us!

Emu and Ostrich

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Ostrich definitely does NOT taste like chicken. [Credit: Flickr user "p_a_h_"]

While technically poultry, these big birds have a flavor more similar to red meat. That makes them a great choice for people who want beefy flavor without all that pesky fat and cholesterol.

Ostrich and emu meats are quite lean, which means they're best prepared by quickly sautéing or grilling to medium rare to maintain a succulent texture. You can prepare them much like a beef or pork roast, or even as steaks, and the ultimate result is quite similar as well. It's a good way to trick that stubborn relative into eating healthier.

Suggested Recipe: We love steak, and we also love not dying of a heart attack. The perfect marriage of those two concepts is this delicious ostrich steaks with calvados sauce recipe.

Swan

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These are the only swans that should be on your table. [Credit: Flickr user "Octal"]

...is not an option. Do not eat swans; that's not allowed.

...but May It Be on Your Head

Hamilton
We would say this is just our two cents, but it's clearly 500 times more important. We did the math. View Larger

Founding Father Alexander Hamilton once famously opined that, "No Citizen of the United States should refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day." All these other birds might be delicious and super hip, but do you really want to disappoint Alex?

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Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.