A man with a broad range of intellectual interests and accomplishments, Poor was a passionate individual who found beauty in life around him, and his interest in nature was longstanding. He became fascinated with birds and insects at an early age, drawing upon the familiar creatures that surrounded him growing up in Kansas. Animals, plants and landscapes are common images in his drawings, paintings, and ceramics; however, his depiction of these subjects transcends mere description, for he wanted to capture the spirit of a subject.
Dead Crow is disarmingly direct and intense. The bird is a looming presence that fills much of the picture space, underscoring the drama of the moment and the pathos of the memento mori theme. Poor was not preoccupied by death, but he probably accepted it as integral to the natural cycle. The theme might have been inspired by the loss of life in World War II or Poor's awareness of his own mortality. Poor was active in the War Artists' Unit around the time Dead Crow was painted, but it is not known whether he executed the work at home in the Hudson River Valley, in New York, or in Alaska, where he was stationed for six months in 1943. Furthermore, Poor was interested in crows, perhaps with a knowledge of their symbolism—death, mourning, and misfortune. In 1920, when he built his home in New City, the abundance of crows in the area led him to name his residence "Crow House."
The central image and symmetry contribute to the iconic quality of Dead Crow, yet the artist's energetic technique vitalizes the work. With both ends of a brush and a palette knife, Poor worked directly on the unprimed hardboard. Painterly brushstrokes, augmented by impasto built up unevenly with a palette knife, convey urgency. An arc, created by the process of sgraffito (scratching into the paint with a brush handle) and by applying paint and scraping it with a palette knife simultaneously, extends from the top of the back wing to the left claw, further animating the surface. The bird is almost encircled by the arc, which also functions like a lens or a gun's sighting device, narrowing the focus on the crow.
Handling of space and color also contribute to the impact of the subject. The crow is close to the picture plane, limiting depth and allowing the viewer to focus on the layered shapes in the bird's body and background. The bird, slightly foreshortened, appears less upright than the arc and the rest of the painted surface, adding tension to the painting, as do the combined vantage points. The palette, limited to black, grays, and earth colors, evokes the bleakness of death. The interplay between the dark grays and blacks of the bird and the brighter umbers of the background provides a dramatic contrast, but the red hardboard intermittently showing through the paint contributes to the picture's immediacy.