The Ravenmaster awoke at the crack of dawn. He emerged from his quarters and onto the grounds. He then prepared water and food for the seven ravens he lives with before releasing six of them for the day. Merlina was already out—she prefers to sleep outside. None of the ravens has three eyes or carries messages. This wasn't Winterfell; it's the Tower of London. And it wasn't a portentous day in 1215 or 1455 or 1605 or 1837. It's today.
Unless the Ravenmaster, Christopher Skaife, is on holiday. Such was the case in October, when Skaife came to New York City, where I interviewed him about his new book, The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018). Our conversation took place before an avian aficionado audience at Caveat, the lower Manhattan spot that bills itself as the “speakeasy bar for intelligent nightlife.” The ravens do not bill themselves—they hatch that way.
Skaife spent more than two decades in the military before becoming, in all its officialdom, Yeoman Warder of Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London and a member of the Sovereign's Body Guard of the Yeoman Guard Extraordinary. But what's truly extraordinary are the birds. “I used to think that my military career came to an end when I left the army,” Skaife writes, “but now I see that it was merely my apprenticeship.”
Indeed, life among the ravens takes discipline and courage—he must maintain his composure up close with large birds (three times the weight of crows) blessed with big beaks and formidable talons. But why are there resident ravens at the Tower in the first place?
In the book, Skaife says that the usual explanation begins with sky watcher John Flamsteed complaining to King Charles II about the wild ravens interfering with the celestial observations he performed at the Tower. Charles agreed to shoo them away, “until someone pointed out that the birds had always been at the Tower and were an important symbol.” Ultimately, Skaife explained at Caveat: “Charles II stated ... that [at least] six ravens should live at the Tower of London forevermore” or the kingdom would fall. But, he continued, “it's myth and legend.”
“The truth,” Skaife writes, “is that there was no Royal Decree... though there was... a Royal Warrant issued in June 1675, which provided John Flamsteed, who became the first Royal Astronomer, with the funding to set up a proper observatory in Greenwich”—site of the prime meridian, longitude 0 degrees. “So it's possible that the confounded ravens played a small part in the history of astronomy and navigation ... simply by being so bloody annoying that Flamsteed had to move out to Greenwich to get away from them.”
The real reason for ravens at the Tower is probably to impress tourists, most of whom see the birds only once. But the ravens continue to impress Skaife, who sees them daily. “Experts in avian cognition have designed all sorts of tests and experiments to measure birds' cognitive abilities and behavior,” Skaife writes, “and I'm proud to say that our ravens at the Tower have assisted in many a scientific study. The consensus among the experts seems to be that ravens can carry out all sorts of tasks that it was previously thought only primates could handle.” Like mess with tourists.
“I've seen Merlina lying on her back, playing dead,” Skaife told me, “much to the dismay and horror of the visitors who come to the Tower of London. We had two ... ladies the other week, actually, who were in tears watching Merlina lying there. She puts her wings out, legs in the air. Honestly, she stays as still as she possibly can. For up to 10 minutes.... And everybody walks past and says, ‘A raven's dead! Raven's dead!’ and I say, “No. Watch her. She's just doing it either because she's bored or she's getting a bit of a suntan.... It's something that they do, and they do it in the wild as well.”
As another Briton once famously said of another bird, a Norwegian Blue parrot: “He's not dead, he's, he's restin’!” Because keeping a kingdom from falling, even apocryphally, must be exhausting.