The death of a crow

Her dissection, cooking, and grieving family

Photograph of the blue sky, as strong as spirits, reflected in the feathers of a crow. I took this picture myself. The fallen matriarch.
Click on the image to view the full photo.
2020.07.27, by Anatolij

This week I had the opportunity to dissect, skin, carve, and cook a crow for the first time in my life. It was one that I seized with alacrity, to Ansel’s dismay.

She was a larger, older female (the last fact I learned during dissection). I’d watched a hawk kill her—but her fellows drove the hunter off so her body was left untouched, outside my apartment window. She was probably the matriarch of the family… When I stepped outside, I made sure to notice the body, and pass by it once and return to my apartment, in full view of the survivors, so that they wouldn’t perceive me as someone interested in consuming crow meat. (Oh dear.) I retrieved the body only after there were no witnesses around—bird witnesses, that is, I didn’t see any people out either but maybe someone saw me bring a dead crow in—and began examining the body.

They aren’t the most attractive of birds, but in the right light, their iridescent feathers reflect the beauty of the world around them. Up close her feathers were little blue layered mirrors, with the sky in them, and I could even see the sycamore tree in them, and the sandy-hued curve of the pavement. She wasn’t black. She was dressed in darkened apartment windows. And if you pulled one of the feathers back from her wing you could see the summer light shine through them, as if through dark curtains.


I have never dissected a bird before. The extent of my experience was the carving of the occasional whole duck, chicken, or turkey, with its organs already moved. Her little heart was round and muscular but not even as long as a thumb, and less than two pinkies wide. Her liver was larger than anything else, and she had a decent amount of food in her gizzard. Her muscle was spinel woven into fine threads, with the light spilling through them. Such fine tissue in small animals is really beautiful. And it almost shimmers.

The skin resembled gravel, with all the feather follicles appearing as white pebbles on grey earth. It was stretched so thin across her ribcage you could even see the whites of her bones through them. Birds are so much smaller after you’ve plucked them. They’re like those hairless cats… You do not need to pluck them all around to dissect them, removing a workable patch in the chest and belly feathers should be enough. It’s hard to understand how hollow bird’s bones really are until you cut through them with a pair of scissors… I had an easier time cutting through her coracoid than through some cardboard boxes.

The leg muscles are well developed and even bulbous, but shockingly small. Those birds that are largely terrestrial, chickens—you realise how massive their legs are in comparison to their flying friends. Yes, crows do hop around on the ground, but they really do not spend enough time exercising on the ground to develop an edible mass that even rivals a stick of jerky. You could still eat it, but not gain very much. Perhaps you would get a chewing gum stick and a quarter worth’s measure of meat, if even that, from one crow’s leg.

Crows are not very bloody. Oh my gosh! In fact, it were as if the bird were bloodless… Humans have so much blood!

Want to take a peek inside bird anatomy without dissecting it? The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has an interactive tool covering the feathers, musculatory, respiratory, digestive, and more systems of bird anatomy.

Screenshot of the All About Bird Anatomy tool on the Cornell Bird Lab, highlighting the circulatory and respiratory systems.

All About Bird Anatomy!

Eating crow

If you were confident in the freshness and quality of the game, you could finely mince the hollow bones together with the muscle and brains, and eat it raw like that. One can do this with a variety of small animals, such as squirrels, rabbits, and many small birds… Or you could take this minced meat and make cooked meatballs out of them. Unfortunately, I am not so adventurous, and so I opted to have only the breast meat, and that was cooked. But next time, for sure…!

They’re quite small! If you form a rectangle with your two thumbs and pointer fingers, that is the amount of breast meat you will get from a crow. It is like the dark meat of a turkey, with a gamier taste, but not bad. Let me tell you, even the brains smell delicious…! But I did not want to break the skull to get to that meat. It’s sitting on my shelf, now…

If you are still wary of the taste or purity of the game you may parboil it to remove any blood and much of the gamey taste (not necessary for crow, honestly), but that’s what I did—only to preserve the moisture in the breast meat, which is like a fine fillet. If you bake or fry it you could dry it very quickly. So if only for that reason I recommend parboiling crow’s breast, or even velveting the meat if you want to be thorough. It’s certainly thin enough for a fantastic stir-fry.

Given the opportunity I would gladly eat crow again.

Immortal Anatolij.

I recommend thyme and prunes to pair with, something fresh and lively to contrast with the stronger flavour and aroma of the crow meat.

The brains smelled pretty good; now that Tolly has his own skull we’ll crack it open and eat that next, but I wonder how much we can share. It’s got a big brain but it’s still a birdbrain, you know.


The murder

The popular English term for a group of crows, for whatever reason, is called a murder. I don’t understand why you can’t just call them a “flock”. Anyway, crows live in extended family groups, local food sources permitting, and the children do not leave their parents immediately after puberty and actually stay with them a few years and help raise their younger siblings, just like how most thirteen-year-olds do not immediately leave the roost to start their own families even after their bar mitzvah. Technically they could—even though they shouldn’t—but the children much benefit from learning how to survive from their caregivers, being tutored in tool use, locations and timing of food sources, and recognition of potential dangers.

When they had found what I had left of the body—I had returned it outside but not directly in front of my apartment window—they were quite distressed. Earlier the group had kept a close eye on the body, to watch for any potential predators in the area—primarily the hawk but any other scavengers—and when they had returned, hours later? It was in a completely different area, and covered. I was surprised they had found it, did they smell it? I should have buried the body better. But they were all perched around it and crying terribly. They mourned and wailed for a good 15, 20 minutes like that.

Everyone has heard crows caw, and some have even heard them rattle. They are not particularly attractive sounds, but there are a variety of them that communicate many different things. “It’s safe here to eat!” “There’s a strange person here!” “I’m over here!” “Time to fight! There’s a hawk!” “HEY! HELP ME!” Those are just a few examples… But have you ever heard a crow mourn? They’re plaintive, there is grief and desperation in them, on the day of the death and the day following there is horror and fear and shock. After, there is less despair and fear and more anger. “Whoever did this! Will not stand!” You would expect most animals to avoid the site where one of their species has been killed, but not crows. They’re cooperative. Even if it’s outside their usual stomping ground they will stay attentive and gather, throughout the day, to see whoever will come threaten them. They stand guard, this black mob, awaiting the hawk who killed their family, or the predator who moved and dismembered the body.

It is now one week since then and they still come by throughout the day to mourn. They cry less. But there is one in particular that almost never ceases to wail. I do not know if this was her mate, or maybe her youngest child—that crow perches too far away for me to size it up and I do not have binoculars. Even now it still sounds very, very scared, more scared than sad. Sometimes it cries to the crow standing right next to it; its companion patiently listens to its scared and grieving friend.

I leave cherries out for the crows. Yesterday two crows were cooing, yes, cooing, gently to their friend, trying to console it and encourage it to eat the cherries I had left out. Most people have never heard a crow coo. Well I will tell them that most crows have never heard a person whisper. It’s a warm, soft, warbling sound, very gentle, and it must be used in intimate contexts indeed. “Go on, it’s all right. Eat some cherries. You’ll feel better.”

They don’t suspect me of anything. I feel a little guilty of this subterfuge. “Hey, I ate your mother, your partner, your sister,” I could never say that to them. If they knew that they would never forgive me.

Hey, crows can actually distinguish between cuckoo chicks and chicks of their own species and actually opt to keep the thing. Great spotted cuckoos drive away predators with a stench when threatened, so for the parents, it actually pays to adopt the extra mouth.