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Merlin Is Missing!

January 19, 2021
by the gentle author

Merlin the raven has gone missing from the Tower – has anyone seen her?

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, as Spitalfields Life Contributing Photographer Martin Usborne & I discovered when we paid an early morning call upon London’s most pampered birds once upon a time.

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

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

16 Responses leave one →
  1. January 19, 2021

    I read about her going missing last week. I ‘m sure Chris is gutted. Maybe she will return. I hope so.

  2. Claire D permalink
    January 19, 2021

    Wonderful pictures and story, made me smile.
    My grandfather had a pet jackdaw for a while, which used to hide treasures in the turn-ups of his trousers.

  3. Alexandra Fiona Dixon permalink
    January 19, 2021

    This is very strange. I quite literally did not know there were ravens kept at the Tower of London until yesterday when I heard an interview with their keeper on the radio in the car (I live in California).

    Best wishes for Merlin’s safe return.

  4. Jill Wilson permalink
    January 19, 2021

    If anyone wants to read more about Merlin I recommend the article by Mary Wakefield which was in the Spectator and can be found via the wonders of Google. It ends by talking about how ravens, like elephants and dolphins, have been known to grieve for their dead companions which might be sadly relevant at this time.

  5. Wendy permalink
    January 19, 2021

    I hope she comes home soon!

  6. Jayne permalink
    January 19, 2021

    Absolutely fabulous write up, love it! Thank you

  7. January 19, 2021

    ‘If the ravens leave the Tower, the kingdom will fall…’ — I believe in these prophecies. I sincerely hope that the Queen will be as well as my father, who is exactly her year of birth, 1926. And I firmly believe that Britain will be much better off after Brexit!

    Love & Peace

  8. January 19, 2021

    What happened to Merlin? Dear G.A., please let us know if the appears. Thank you.

  9. Pamela Traves permalink
    January 19, 2021

    These Wonderful Pictures of the Royal Ravens. I’d Love to go to London to see them. Thank You So Much!! (I’m from Vancouver BC, My family is from Ireland and Scotland.)????????

  10. Mark. permalink
    January 19, 2021

    Poor Merlin!
    One can only hope the Kingdom (Monarchy) does fall.
    Might have a chance then……

  11. Boudica Redd permalink
    January 19, 2021

    Merlin was it that one wyth them black beady eyes that kept watching me when you filmed us at thee tower back in October 2019 there used to be a raven that used to wait fore me to go to thee boot sale on a Sunday back in 2011 perhaps he could see my husband Guido Fawkes let’s hope they fund her

  12. January 19, 2021

    Your photos convey the deep kinship between Mr. Skaife and Merlin; and I can imagine that he must feel this loss very deeply. Your article captures the rampant charisma of the raven – surely a one-of-a-kind companion. Until today, I was unaware that a flock of ravens is known as an “unkindness” — which seems quite fitting when one of them is no longer around to produce smiles, curiosity and admiration. (and tugs on shoe laces)

    Mr. Skaife, I am very sorry for the loss of this magnificent friend.
    Stay safe, all.

  13. Eva Radford permalink
    January 19, 2021

    I read about Merlin last week and was hoping she would be back by now. So sorry Mr. Skaife. This is a terrible loss. She was magnificent. Thank you for posting these photos of happier times.

  14. Amanda permalink
    January 20, 2021

    So sorry.
    Losing anyone we are deeply attached to is wounding.
    Like Chris Scaife l’ve felt the loss deeply of my pets and the disappearance of my own daily garden wildlife characters.

    l’m in tune with his emotion of not knowing her fate, nor hearing so far from anyone who may have found her.
    A solid conclusion can be healing to the human mind.

    My escaped kitty found by the paperboy changed the level of mind whirring desperation, sleeplessly searching high + low to get her back, to one of resigned profound grief.

    Coming across a wounded squirrel or pigeon, l safely wrap them like a burrito and take them to my wildlife vet and then worry and worry til they phone with the outcome, completely unable to settle til l know their fate or recovery.

    Jill’s recommended touching article in The Spectator reveals Merlin’s own silent grief at the sudden loss of a friend, gently touching her closed eyes with her beak, maybe instinctively sensing that if they magically opened, all was not lost.

    Such a devoted bond Chris has had with Miss Merlin and as Achim reminds us we might heed the omen that she did indeed leave the hamlet of the sombre Tower despite her love for him.

    l pray she does return to Chris and l pray we are allowed to return to a life worth living.
    Her return would mean so much.

  15. January 20, 2021

    So sad to hear about Merlin, such a stunning bird.

  16. January 21, 2021

    Great images!

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