They’re incredibly bright, love crisps (but not prawn cocktail) and if they ever leave, the Tower of London will topple. But what’s it like to look after the world’s most important ravens?
Ravenmaster Chris Skaife has a delightful commute to work. He rises in his home within the walls of the Tower of London, strolls across the cobbles to the central green and, just like that, he’s ready to start his working day. He is usually up at first light, keen to feed the ravens before the inevitable influx of tourists.
These large, gothic-looking birds have been permanent residents at the Tower of London for as long as anyone can remember. Some believe that they were originally attracted by the smell of death and a legend developed that if the ravens were ever to leave, the Tower would crumble and great harm would befall the country.
A superstitious King Charles II decreed in 1660 that there must always be at least six ravens in residence in order to protect the kingdom.
And so it is now the job of the ravenmaster, one of the Tower’s 37 yeoman guards, to ensure that the ravens remain. Like all yeoman guards, Chris served more than two decades in the military (‘The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, or The Tigers, as we’re more commonly known’) before coming to the Tower. This Tiger has been caring for the ravens for six years.
‘Before you become ravenmaster, you have to be an assistant first to learn about the birds,’ he explains, as I join him for the morning feed. ‘The birds pick the ravenmaster, rather than the other way round. They’re very intelligent animals and they know who they like, and who they don’t like. We believe they have the same brain capacity as a small monkey.’
Currently there are seven birds at the tower – six to fulfil the royal decree, plus a spare. Chris knows all of them by name: ‘I can tell which one is which by their size, the shape of their beak and their feathers,’ he says fondly. ‘They all have their own personalities – they’re very different. Raven Rocky is quite boisterous, whereas Raven Portia is quite shy and withdrawn.’
He chats to them as he opens their aviaries: ‘Come on, you lot. Good morning!’ They are put away at night to protect them from foxes and other predators, but during the day they are free to roam wherever. ‘There’s nothing to stop them escaping from the Tower of London,’ he states. ‘And yet they stay. They’re very territorial and like to stick to their own areas.’
Chris feeds them a diet of meaty delicacies, including rats, mice and lambs’ hearts. In the afternoon they might get a boiled egg, blood-soaked biscuit or, if they’re really lucky, a slice of Chris’s wife’s lemon drizzle cake.
It is extraordinary to watch this softly spoken man interact so easily with the birds, as fundamentally they are rather fierce creatures. ‘They are absolutely not in any way friendly,’ he chuckles. ‘Although they are bred specifically for the Tower; we keep them as wild as we possibly can.’
The Tower of London receives up to two million visitors a year, all of whom run the risk of being bitten if they get too close. ‘If the tourists have snacks or chocolate, then they’re really asking for trouble. The ravens will steal absolutely everything.’
Many a time the ravens have made a beeline for a packet of crisps. ‘They gang up on a member of the public – even if the bag is not open, it doesn’t thwart them. They’ll rip it apart, spread [the crisps] around the floor and help themselves.’ The ravens are not too fond of prawn cocktail flavour, mind: ‘They go to the water bowls, dip the crisps in and wipe off all the flavouring before eating them,’ Chris laughs.
After a quick sweep of the aviaries, he greets a particularly glossy and majestic-looking bird. This is Merlin who, at 18 years of age, is currently the eldest of the Tower’s ravens. ‘She’s at the prime of her life,’ says Chris, and he doesn’t mind admitting that she’s his favourite. Merlin perches on the wall, cooing, while Chris strokes her, practically nose to beak. ‘It’s taken us about five years to get to this stage,’ he reveals. ‘She’s probably more human than she is bird.’
Merlin will often seek Chris out while he’s sitting in one of the Guard’s boxes around the Tower. ‘She’ll come and tap on the door and invite herself in, and then sit with me for the hour that I’m there.’
Merlin clearly adores her master, but she can get very grumpy indeed with members of the public. ‘If she’s had enough of being photographed or the camera flashes are annoying her, she’ll just turn around. And if she’s in a really bad mood, she goes and hides in a tree and makes angry noises.’
Chris and his three assistants – all of whom are trained falconers – keep an eye on the birds during the day, in between attending to other duties, including sitting in the guards’ boxes and conducting guided tours. Chris also responds to the many letters he gets enquiring about the ravens. ‘They are revered around the world,’ he says proudly. ‘It’s coming up to moulting season, so I’ll get lots of requests from people wanting raven feathers. I received a letter from a lady in France last week who wanted one for a rare medieval instrument. They are used a lot in faith healing, too.’
After a day of roaming, perching and posing for photos, the ravens are ready for bed once twilight draws in. ‘They go to bed in exactly the same way, using exactly the same routes, in exactly the same order. They’re very habitual creatures. The art of looking after the ravens is simply not to disturb their way of life.’
With the birds safely in their aviaries, Chris may enjoy a drink with the other guards and their families in their very own pub within the Tower. ‘We are a lovely little community in the heart of London,’ he says. He is always eager to be up early the next day to greet his charges. ‘The Tower is wonderful in the morning,’ he beams. ‘It’s just me, the ravens, and the ghosts.'
Daily tip from the lady archive
“A GRACEFUL walk is a great asset, for sometimes it can create an illusion of beauty where little exists.”The Lady. Pleasant Exercises for Grace. 2nd April 1931