Early Sunday mornings are a treat for Merlina, Poppy and the five other ravens who are permanent residents of the Tower of London. Before the castle gates open to the public—it welcomes roughly 3 million annual visitors—their handler, Ravenmaster Christopher Skaife, a Yeoman Warder of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London (commonly referred to by the more palatable title, Beefeater) feeds the ravens a healthy diet of meat that includes rats and mice, and, for a special treat, biscuits soaked in blood.
It is important that this small conspiracy of ravens are well-fed and happy. At least happy enough to make the Tower of London their permanent home. According to legend, should the ravens leave, the Tower will crumble into dust and great harm will befall the monarch and Great Britain.
A former soldier in the British Army, an avid environmentalist and, most recently, the author of The Ravenmaster, Skaife has shouldered the responsibility of ensuring the welfare of his avian charges, and has been doing his bit to keep the kingdom out of harm’s way, since 2011.
Why do the ravens stay?
The association with ravens at the Tower of London probably came along during the Victorian period. Although I give them great freedom of movement to fly around the Tower, the ravens are very habitual. They have built up routines and rituals in the environment they have created here.
Why is it people associate ravens with death?
The fact that they are big, black and gothic looking has meant they have long been associated with ill omens and darkness. Throughout history, these meat-eaters would follow men into battle, patiently waiting in the treetops in hopes of getting a good meal. But, they have been unfairly stigmatized. They are smart and playful, each with a unique personality—much like cats.
Do you have a favourite raven?
Merlina and I are quite close. We get on very well. She tends to be more friendly. But, I don’t form attachments like [you] would do with a dog because I don’t consider them as pets. I consider them to be an entity of the Tower.
Do the ravens interact with visitors?
Tourists should only observe the ravens. They are wild animals. Be careful if you bring in crisps. Some of the ravens have a tendency to go and steal stuff. Poppy is the newest raven and a little bit cheeky. If she comes up to you, step back and give her a little space.
What do you love about this job?
To walk around this fantastic iconic building on my own, with no one around, talking, observing and interacting with the ravens, that’s something special. But, I also love interacting with the public and getting them fascinated about ravens, not just at the Tower, but around the world. I am humbled by the amount of people who care about the birds.
[This story appears in the May 2019 edition of WestJet Magazine.]
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