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Chris Skaife, Master Raven Keeper at the Tower of London, & Merlin the Raven

March 3, 2013
by the gentle author

Chris Skaife & Merlin

Every day at first light, Chris Skaife, Master Raven Keeper at the Tower of London, awakens the ravens from their slumbers and feeds them breakfast. It is one of the lesser known rituals at the Tower, so Spitalfields Life Contributing Photographer Martin Usborne & I decided to pay an early morning call upon London’s most pampered birds last week and send you a report.

The keeping of ravens at the Tower is a serious business, since legend has it that, ‘If the ravens leave the Tower, the kingdom will fall…’ Fortunately, we can all rest assured thanks to Chris Skaife who undertakes his breakfast duties conscientiously, delivering bloody morsels to the ravens each dawn and thereby ensuring their continued residence at this most favoured of accommodations.“We keep them in night boxes for their own safety,” Chris explained to me, just in case I should think the ravens were incarcerated at the Tower like those monarchs of yore, “because we have quite a lot of foxes that get in through the sewers at night.”

First thing, Chris unlocks the bird boxes built into the ancient wall at the base of the Wakefield Tower and, as soon as he opens each door, a raven shoots out blindly like a bullet from a gun, before lurching around drunkenly on the lawn as its eyes  accustom to the daylight, brought to consciousness by the smell of fresh meat. Next, Chris feeds the greedy brother ravens Gripp – named after Charles Dickens’ pet raven – & Jubilee – a gift to the Queen on her Diamond Anniversary – who share a cage in the shadow of the White Tower.

Once this is accomplished, Chris walks over to Tower Green where Merlin the lone raven lives apart from her fellows. He undertakes this part of the breakfast service last, because there is little doubt that Merlin is the primary focus of Chris’ emotional engagement. She has night quarters within the Queen’s House, once Anne Boleyn’s dwelling, and it suits her imperious nature very well. Ravens are monogamous creatures that mate for life but, like Elizabeth I, Merlin has no consort. “She chose her partner, it’s me,” Chris assured me in a whisper, eager to confide his infatuation with the top bird, before he opened the door to wake her. Then, “It’s me!” he announced cheerily to Merlin but, with suitably aristocratic disdain, she took her dead mouse from him and flounced off across the lawn where she pecked at her breakfast a little before burying it under a piece of turf to finish later, as is her custom.

“The other birds watch her bury the food, then lift up the turf and steal it,” Chris revealed to me as he watched his charge with proprietorial concern, “They are scavengers by nature, and will hunt in packs to kill – not for fun but to eat. They’ll attack a seagull and swing it round but they won’t kill it, gulls are too big. They’ll take sweets, crisps and sandwiches off children, and cigarettes off adults. They’ll steal a purse from a small child, empty it out and bury the money. They’ll play dead, sun-bathing, and a member of the public will say, ‘There’s a dead raven,’ and then the bird will get up and walk away. But I would not advise any members of the public to touch them, they have the capacity to take off a small child’s finger – not that they have done, yet.”

We walked around to the other side of the lawn where Merlin perched upon a low rail. Close up, these elegant birds are sleek as seals, glossy black, gleaming blue and green, with a disconcerting black eye and a deep rasping voice. Chris sat down next to Merlin and extended his finger to stroke her beak affectionately, while she gave him some playful pecks upon the wrist.

“Students from Queen Mary University are going to study the ravens’ behaviour all day long for three years.” he informed me, “There’s going to be problem-solving for ravens, they’re trying to prove ravens are ‘feathered apes.’ We believe that crows, ravens and magpies have the same brain capacity as great apes. If they are a pair, ravens will mimic each other’s movements for satisfaction. They all have their own personalities, their moods, and their foibles, just like people.”

Then Merlin hopped off her perch onto the lawn where Chris followed and, to my surprise, she untied one of Chris’s shoelaces with her beak, tugging upon it affectionately and causing him to chuckle in great delight. While he was thus entrammelled, I asked Chris how he came to this role in life. “Derrick Coyle, the previous Master Raven Keeper, said to me, ‘I think the birds will like you.’ He introduced me to it and I’ve been taking care of them ever since. Chris admitted plainly, opening his heart, The ravens are continually on your mind. It takes a lot of dedication, it’s early starts and late nights - I have a secret whistle which brings them to bed.”

It was apparent then that Merlin had Chris on a leash which was only as long as his shoelace. “If one of the other birds comes into her territory, she will come and sit by me for protection,” he confessed, confirming his Royal romance with a blush of tender recollection, “She sees me as one of her own.”

“Alright you lot, up you get!”

“A pigeon flew into the cage the other day and the two boys got it, that was a mess.”

“It’s me!”

“She chose her partner, it’s me.”

“She sees me as one of her own.”

Chris Skaife & Merlin

Charles Dickens’ Raven “Grip” – favourite expression, “Halloa old girl!”

Tower photographs copyright © Martin Usborne

Residents of Spitalfields and any of the Tower Hamlets may gain admission to the Tower of London for one pound upon production of an Idea Store card.

Read Martin Usborne’s blog A Year to Help

You may also like to take a look at these other Tower of London stories

Alan Kingshott, Yeoman Gaoler at the Tower of London

Graffiti at the Tower of London

Beating the Bounds at the Tower of London

Ceremony of the Lilies & Roses at the Tower of London

Bloody Romance of the Tower with pictures by George Cruickshank

John Keohane, Chief Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London

Constables Dues at the Tower of London

The Oldest Ceremony in the World

A Day in the Life of the Chief Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London

Joanna Moore at the Tower of London

27 Responses leave one →
  1. March 3, 2013

    What a lovely, lovely post. Thank you so much.

    Here in Australia I love to see our crows and our bearded ravens, and can well believe that they are as intelligent as the great apes. Mind you, for avian intelligence New Zealands’ kea would take some beating.

  2. March 3, 2013

    “The birds will like you.”
    so beautiful.
    thank you thank you, another home run.

  3. Pamela permalink
    March 3, 2013

    Ravens are incredibly intelligent and have been shown to make tools.

  4. Cate permalink
    March 3, 2013

    Fascinating. I don’t know much about ravens, but really like crows. I feed the ones in my local park with pieces of dried dog food, and they know me now, as soon as I enter the park, they follow me around to wait for me to toss the food to them. The also like to tease my dog when she chases them. They swoop and dive in front of her, staying safely out of her way.

  5. Greg Tingey permalink
    March 3, 2013

    Having watched wild ravens doing ariel “wheelies” above a narrow hause in the Lake District, through the gusts of a gale, & only too obviously just for fun …..
    Yes, all corvids are intelligent, New Guinea Crows are presently supposed the brightest.
    Though, of course, Odin was accompanined by two Ravens, Hugin & Munin [ Thought & Memory ]
    I wonder if they are as bright as African Grey Parrots?

  6. Libby Hall permalink
    March 3, 2013

    “It was apparent then that Merlin had Chris on a leash which was only as long as his shoelace.”

    Lovely words. Splendid photographs.

    Lucky us to start Sunday morning with Spitalfields Life.

  7. March 3, 2013

    I visited a while back and Merlin stole my tour notes (I do, or did guided tours of London etc for TEFL students) and they had to be retrieved for me. I have too much respect for that pick-axe of a beak to have tried myself.
    Quite wonderful; thank you for sharing.

  8. March 3, 2013

    What a great story, thank you.
    Do you know when the beefeater costume was designed? Is it Elizabethan?

  9. Ange permalink
    March 3, 2013

    Great article with such wonderful photos! I very much enjoyed seeing the ravens when I visited the Tower last year – they really are beautiful birds. Chris’ twitter is worth a follow for those who are interested in more of the ravens’ daily adventures! https://twitter.com/ravenmaster1

  10. March 3, 2013

    I agree with Libby Hall, what a wonderful way to start the Sunday.

  11. March 3, 2013

    I thoroughly enjoyed this post. The photographs are beautiful. What a great job to have! how wonderful it must be to have such close emotional connections with these smart birds!

  12. gary permalink
    March 3, 2013

    well done but wheres Mr Pussy?

  13. Robin Stephenson permalink
    March 3, 2013

    Ravens are interesting creatures – The Mind of the Raven is a nice read if you want to know more.

  14. Liz St.John permalink
    March 3, 2013

    I met Merlin when I was at the Tower this past summer. She is formidable!
    Thank you for her feature story.

  15. March 3, 2013

    Thank you for this lovely post! The shoelace photograph is a gem.

  16. March 3, 2013

    What a wonderful, empathetic relationship between man and bird. A thoroughly enjoyable post.

  17. Chris permalink
    March 4, 2013

    This is a great piece of writing! It has captured the Ravenmaster and The Tower Ravens very well. I am very lucky to have the privilege of looking after a national treasure! Merlin is for sure a very intelligent and special Raven however I must point out that ALL the Ravens I look after are special to me. Each Raven has its own personality and I has come to know all of them as indivuals. Please do feel free to come and visit me at the Tower of London.

    Ravenmaster
    Chris Skaife.

  18. Scott permalink
    March 4, 2013

    Just loved this, and agree with Libby about the eloquent shoelace line. And timely for me having spent part of today chatting to a butcher bird (in Sydney) that comes down to sing to us and follows us about at work – I think this is one of your best posts :-)

  19. sprite permalink
    March 5, 2013

    ravens’ breakfast -
    the arc of neck and beak
    shredding carrion

    ”glossy black
    gleaming blue and green ”
    each feather under the lense

    sprite

  20. Ti Colluney permalink
    March 5, 2013

    On a visit to the Tower last year, Merlin took a liking to me and followed me for some time about the greens. I asked what her name was and was told it was Merlin. She was very interested in everything I did and if I sat she came very close which scared me a bit knowing they have a fondness for human eyeballs off the spiked heads in previous centuries. I cannot wait to return and see if she will once again have an attachment towards me.

  21. Rachel Hopkins permalink
    March 5, 2013

    The ravens are amazing and I loved reading about them. Thanks.

  22. March 6, 2013

    isnt that the maddest job ever !
    wonderfully barking ,so english , love it though.

  23. March 9, 2013

    Such beautiful, intelligent birds. Mr Skaife, I want your job!

  24. KIM permalink
    May 8, 2013

    I have a pair of Ravens who have been coming into the garden since the beginning of the year. I love them they are v. bossy and one of them particularly likes trying to smash his way through the window of one of the bedrooms. (so far unsuccessfully!)
    My question is this. One of them has white feathers on his chest. Not all over but mottled. When they first arrived these feathers appeared disturbed and out of place, although it didn’t affect his flight. They’re smoother now and just look like white patches.
    Any idea why he has these white feathers?

  25. May 16, 2013

    What a lovely site. My boyfriend and myself intend on visiting the tower of london very soon. I cannot wait to meet the ravens. I have always been a keen ornithologist. I also am aware that crows are very good mimics. When I visited bird world most people walked past the crow in an aviary. When the crow said “hello”, lots of people turned round and also went to say hello. I was very impressed. My grandfather had a jackdaw that used to come and see him in his garden, and sit on his shoulder and finger. My pussy cats, especially BoBo love looking at the crows out of the flat window. I say to him “I wouldn’t mess with him, you will definitely come off worse.

    Can’t wait to see the ravens. Especially the gorgeous Merlin.

  26. Angela Allen-Blount permalink
    August 5, 2013

    Dear Chris.
    I reside in the Middle East, in a country called Qatar, I and my family are returning to the UK on August 12th for 10 days, and I would like to bring them up to the Tower, as my family has many connections with the tower, I would also like our grandson to see our monument in the chapel, and the inscription that was discovered in the Beacham Tower, written by Michael Blount the then Governor of the Tower.
    Yours Sincerely.
    Angela Allen-Blount

  27. gioconda permalink
    October 30, 2013

    Your posts are unique. Thank you for this!
    A pair of ravens once graced our courtyard, and one would announce snow storms by flying the length of the yard, screaming loudly. The other birds would fall silent and seem to listen. The raven was never wrong, though he was often at odds with the TV savants with their radar screens. I miss them now.

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