Crow: Memento Mori

**WARNING to the squeamish: this post is about something dead and what I did to prepare it for a project. Also, there are maggots.**

This project started like most of them do, with some bad luck and some good luck. The bad luck was: a crow died. The good luck was: I found it.

It’s not everyday you come across a dead crow, and this was a particularly weird instance because it was in a city. I was walking the dog around the block while at work and I spotted this unfortunate fellow in some tall plants. He was already a day or two gone and was getting a little smelly. “Alright,” I said to myself, “If he’s still here by Friday I will pick him up.”

As it works out he was there by Friday so I discreetly (or at least HOPEFULLY discreetly) picked him up in a plastic bag and then stowed it in another canvas bag. After all, you don’t want to be spotted picking up dead things in a metropolitan area! I made it to back to the car. It was the stinkiest ride home I’ve had in a while.

I kept the crow in a small cooler on the balcony and the next day checked on it. It was rank and FILLED with maggots. I have to tell you, maggots are extremely efficient at breaking down dead things but that’s probably their own redeeming feature. I learned lots of gross things about them thanks to this experience and if you’d ever liked to be thoroughly creeped out, just ask me about it. Lucky for you, I didn’t take any pictures of this particular part of the process.

I’ve got a pretty strong stomach, but this maggoty business was a little much. I decided the balcony was too close to my house for this mess so off into the woods we went. As soon as I put the crow down on the leaf bed many of the critters began to disperse. Ideally you would leave something dead outside, exposed to the elements to get it picked down to the bone. But in this case I was reluctant do that because it was a public spot of land with lots of wildlife that would probably run off with the goods. So I fetched a few tools so I could manually clean and save some choice pieces.

First thing was to save some of the feathers. The short body covering feathers were easy enough to pluck. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the wings–either keep them mostly in tact or take the feathers and just use the bones as a separate element. So I left them alone. I was able to take the tail feathers which were harder to remove.

The second thing was to save the claws. These I had to remove using some old pruners. The last thing was to save the skull and a bit of the spine. The skull was the trickiest part because there was quite a bit of skin and feathers. But, armed with an x-acto knife I was able to free it up. In doing so I got a bit of an anatomy lesson: the black of the crow’s beak is actually attached to the skin, the windpipe of the crow is attached to its pointy tongue and is quite a marvelous structure.

I also managed to easily free the breast bone which was pretty clean. The rest of it was still pretty icky. I was sad to leave the wings behind, because really–aside from the skull–those really are the iconic parts of a crow, but they were a big unmanageable. One factor was I wasn’t sure how to get the skin off but keep the feathers in good shape. The other factor was that the maggots were nuts about what was remaining on the wing. There were TONS of them there and wiggled into every hidey crevice and I was positive I couldn’t get them to abandon it. So I left them with the hope they would do their work and then I could retrieve those bits later.

It was time to clean the items I had kept:

The feathers I soaked in a water and soap mixture to start. It smelled pretty gross. When I was done, I stuck them in a hydrogen peroxide bath to disinfect (but not bleach) them.

The claws I soaked in hydrogen peroxide outright. This was to disinfect but also to kill any maggots that might have snuck their way into them.

Last, I soaked the bones in water. This process is called maceration and it takes days, weeks, or even months depending on the bone. After the water removes most of the soft tissue the bones get scrubbed and soaked in hydrogen peroxide. Here you see the skull with a bit of spine attached, and the breastbone.

The next step was some project preparation:

Raw materials: feathers and claws, dried moss, gems, a glass apothecary jar, brushes for cleaning, rubber gloves, lots of paper towels.

Freezer paper is great for this kind of work since you can put the shiny side down and ensure that whatever fowl liquids you produce don’t absorb into anything.

Next in the process I removed the claws from the hydrogen peroxide and placed them in a container full of cornmeal. The purpose of this is to dry them out and mummify them. It can take months, so you must be patient.

For the feathers, it was time to give them a scrub and dry.

Hard at work.

Then it was time to let all the components take a moment to relax. The claws were left to mummify, the feathers to dry, and the bones to clean themselves. The lot was all left for a week.

By then the gore on the bones was broken down. So began part two! Draining the gross water and saving the bones, I took a soft bristled toothbrush to make sure they were extra clean. Then it was time to make them pretty! Hydrogen peroxide disinfected the bones and turned the bone a nice bright white color.

The bones after they’ve had a soak in hydrogen peroxide, and the claws after being buried in cornmeal.

Interestingly enough, after their soak in the water the black part of the crow’s beak separated from the bone. But they slid easily back onto the beak like fingers into a glove. After the hydrogen peroxide everything was left to dry out.

After all that preparation the art and design part came in! I had purchased an apothecary jar and some other materials. Step one was providing a foundation for crow bits. In the apothecary jar I put a layer of quarts and amethyst gems, and then a soft cushiony layer of moss.

I love moss–a befitting soft and cushy resting place for anything. I ended up using two kinds: green and purple. And, if you believe in the magical or metaphysical properties of crystals, quartz and amethyst are said to stimulate psychic awareness.

Then came the arrangement of the crow bits. I decided for this piece to use only the feathers and skull.

Peering into the glass

Close-up of the skull

The finished product, all together.

I’m really pleased with how it turned out. I think it’s a befitting tribute to one of my favorite animals. And I’m looking forward to do more with the other bits!