Christopher Skaife talks about his new book The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London, in front of a live audience at Caveat, “the speakeasy bar for intelligent nightlife" in Lower Manhattan.
Welcome to Scientific American’s Science Talk, posted on December 18th, 2018. I’m Steve Mirsky. On this episode:
Christopher Skaife: "Sometimes I show a slide of a raven and a crow together and you can just see the actual size difference. There is a difference in their vocalization as well; ravens have a much more deeper, throaty type of vocalization, and it is believed that some of them actually have accents as well to where they live. So the ravens at the Tower of London are all cockney; they all speak like cockney."
That’s Christopher Skaife. He’s the author and one of the subjects of the new book The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London. In which he discusses what it’s like to spend his days with these highly intelligent, mischievous birds. Skaife was on a tour of the U.S. recently. On October 23rd I chatted with him at Caveat, the Lower Manhattan spot that bills itself as “the speakeasy bar for intelligent nightlife.” We spoke in front of a live audience.
So I'm Steve Mirsky from Scientific American and I think that's the last you're going to hear from me tonight. This is obviously Christopher Skaife, the Ravenmaster.
Skaife: Thank you so much for coming tonight; it's been absolutely amazing to see you all here. I have what is often described as the oddest job in Britain. Odd may be the best, definitely. My official title is Yeoman Warder Christopher Skaife of her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress, the Tower of London and a member of the Sovereign of the Guard or the Yeoman of the Guard Extraordinary. Now that's quite a mouthful, isn't it?
There is a legend, should the ravens leave the Tower of London it will crumble into dust and a great harm will befall our kingdom. Now I share this wonderful legend with our visitors at the Tower every day. My fellow young warders share the wonderful legends of the ravens every day. The legends of the ravens have been wrote down in books, magazines, newspaper articles for well over 100 years, and throughout the world they are great stories, they are important stories, and I'd go so far as to say that they are now part of British national heritage.
So I thought it would be a really great idea if I could, as the Ravenmaster, for the first time that I know of in history, tell the ravens' story. I think we owe it to them for their service to the tower. They are, after all, the true guardians of the Tower of London. And I'm going to pass this over to Steve now.
Mirsky: Let's see, he's already answered my first three questions. So you must come from a long line of ravenmasters.
Skaife: Absolutely not. No. No, there is only—I am the sixth ravenmaster to ever be at the Tower of London, so it's quite a modern appointment, if you like. Before that, before 1968 it was known as the yeoman quartermaster, and he was responsible for the drainage around the Tower of London and to ensure that the ravens didn't fly away. And at a period of time somewhere around the gentleman or yeoman quartermaster's time when he was doing the ravens he was on an interview with a local newspaper and two old yeoman warders walked past him and they said to the journalist, they said, "Don't speak to him; he's raving mad." And from that day onwards he was known as the Ravin' Master, R-A-V-I-N' Master. And over a period of years it then changed to the Raven Master, two separate words, and then somewhere along the lines there was a spelling mistake and it joined together.
And it didn't actually become an official appointment until 1969, when the Badge of Office, which I'm wearing at the moment on my sleeve, was designed by one of the old ravenmasters, and I am, as far as I'm aware, the only official ravenmaster in the world. I'm sure that there are other people around the world that like to call themselves ravenmaster, but I don't want to know what they get up to. Okay?
And so the badge that I wear has the head of Bran on it, which in Welsh mythology is a story about Bran and Bran win.
Mirsky: So Bran, you probably know if you watch Game of Thrones, is the three-eyed raven now.
Mirsky: The reason he's named Bran is—
Skaife: Yeah, absolutely, it's Celtic for raven. I actually had the privilege of meeting the gentleman who wrote the Game of Thrones. I didn't know at the time who he was, so his PA got in touch with the Tower and said that he would love to go and see the ravens. So I didn't really know who he was, so he came into the Tower and I was talking to him about the ravens and showing him the ravens and stuff like that. And I did actually mention to him that ours didn't have three eyes and they're not that fast at delivering messages.
Mirsky: So you did your 20 or 22 years in the army. Let's talk about your job interview.
Skaife: Yeah. So to be a yeoman warder you have to done a minimum of 22 years in the military, you have to be the rank of a warrant officer and above, and have an exemplary military record, which of course in my case, if you have read my book, is 18 years of undetected crime. But I had to leave the military after 22 years. In fact, I actually done 25 years in the military, and I had to go and look for a job and I had no idea what to do. During my military career I was a specialist machine gunner and I was a drum major. Well, I was in charge of a corps of drums, which is a flute and fife band. And so there was not much call for a flute-playing machine-gunner in the city straight.
Yeah, so obviously I needed to leave the military, because at the age of 40 I was kind of worn out; I'd spent 11 years on operational tours around the world wherever our government sent us, and they've sent us to some strange places, and I needed to go and find a job. And I didn't really have any idea of what I wanted to do. I did have a love for history; I had a love for nature and the environment.
And so I can remember as a section commander in Northern Ireland, I was in charge of about 24 men and we were walking through the countryside in Northern Ireland and I'd stop the whole patrol and I'd get down on my knee and tell them all to go down, and they'd all be looking around, looking for snipers and terrorists and all of a sudden there would be a vole in the corner or a butterfly flying past. They just thought I was really switched on, but actually I was looking at the nature and environment around me, so it was wonderful.
But I needed to have a job. One of the old caretakers where I worked previously come up to me one day and he said, "Chris," he says, "you're a boring git." He said, "You like history. Why don't you become a yeoman warder?" I had no idea what a yeoman warder was; I thought that we stood around the Queen all day, guarding her. Neither did I know that there were ravens at the Tower of London; I knew that there was a legend or myth about some birds there, but I really didn't have a clue about it, such is my naïveté. So I applied for the job and I went for it.
I've only ever been on two interviews, folks. The first interview I went on I went with my mum, and my mum took me to the Army Career Center, dragged me to the Army Career Center, and so I went with a good lady. And then 25 years later I went with my wife. And so I've never actually been on a job interview on my own. My wife is in the audience tonight here, somewhere around, she's over there.
Mirsky: But the interview for your current position was not conducted by a human being?
Skaife: No. Actually, when I joined the Body of Yeoman Warders obviously I became a part of the Body of Yeoman Warders. There's 37 yeoman warders that live and work inside the walls of the Tower of London, and we do live there with our families. So when you come to the Tower of London and you see all our washing hanging up on our washing lines, it's actually because we've got nowhere else to dry it; that is our home. We have our own pub there, and we lock ourselves in at nighttime as well, because we have our own—well, we have some bling that we need to look after, some lovely diamonds. And so we lock ourselves in at nighttime.
But when I became part of the raven team, or Team Raven as I actually call it, I have a team of four that help me out nowadays and look after the ravens, and so they are waiting for me to come back. I'm on the phone to Merlina every day and she's like, "When are you coming back?" So one day—
Mirsky: Merlina is one of the ravens; it's not his wife.
Skaife: Actually it probably is [inaudible due to laughter].
So Derrick Coyle was one of the old ravenmasters and he was a tall, upright man, a very proud man, an ex-regimental sergeant major and black was black and white was white and that was it. And he came up to me one day, I'd been at the Tower about six months or so, and he goes, "Boy,"—I was 40 at the time; he called everybody boy—he said, "The ravens might like you." And I thought to myself—I didn't say it to him; I thought to myself, "Why would the ravens like me?" And he says, "Come down with me to their cage and I'll show you them."
So in the evening time I went down there and he opened up the cage and here's two massive ravens like this. Honestly, they looked like harpies to me at the time. So he put me in this cage and the ravens were in there and he said, "Stay still." I wasn't going to move. And one of them, it was actually Bran, started to walk towards me and he got a little bit closer and a little bit closer and I became a little bit stiller and a little bit stiller, until I could almost feel the breath of this raven on my face. And it just kind of cocked its head to one side, as ravens do, and just looked at me with its beady eye, and at that moment I knew that I wasn't looking at them, they were observing me. And I fell in love with them and from that moment onwards I was infected by ravens, and I have been ever since.
Anyway, Derrick said, "Get out, quickly." So I did, quickly. And he goes, "Yeah," he says, "the ravens love you." And so I tell everybody at the Tower of London that the ravens picked me rather than the other around, but actually he was quite a wily old man and what he was seeing is to see if I was actually scared of the ravens at the time. And so if you show any kind of fright to the ravens they pick up on it and they'll know and then they'll much you around. And they have done that quite a lot, yeah. Yeah. So the ravens picked me.
Mirsky: We're very familiar with crows in this part of the country, but talk about the difference between real ravens and crows.
Skaife: The easiest way to explain the difference, they are part of the same family, but the easiest way to explain the difference to them is just size. When you compare—and sometimes I show a slide of a raven and a crow together in the skeletal form and you can just see the actual size difference. There is a difference in their vocalization as well; ravens have a much more deeper, throaty type of vocalization, and they change depending on environment or conditions where they live around the world, and it is believed that some of them actually have accents as well to where they live. So the ravens at the Tower of London are all cockney; they all speak like cockney."
No, so they don't. And so Charles Dickens explained the sound of a raven really, really well, as "the drawling of eight dozen wine bottles all at the same time." And I think that's a really good way of describing the croaking sound that they actually make. Although Merlina does make a knocking sound to me; she—I'm going to have to do it to you, aren't I? Yeah. It's like a confident sound that we do to each other, and she can see me wherever—I might be in civilian clothes or in a group of 100 or 200 people and she makes this knocking sound and it's like she's saying, "Hey, I'm here" and then I have to make the knocking sound back and go, "Yeah, I'm over here." And we do it until we get kind of bored of each other. It's normally her getting bored of me, which is quite funny, because when I'm outside the Tower, when I'm walking down Tower Hill, just minding my own business, I can see her on the rooftops and I can hear her in the distance making this knocking sound. So I have to do it back to her, and everybody around me is looking at me, going, "What is that strange man doing?" It sounds a little bit like this [clicks tongue]. And that's it.
Mirsky: Merlina is a little bit different.
Skaife: Yeah, she is. Actually, she's—I mean I do—I started doing some social media stuff about five or six years ago, and my daughter I think said to me, "Why don't you do Twitter?" I had no idea what Twitter was. And so I thought, "I'll start with this." 'Cause I knew that some people liked corvids and birds. And so I started up this Twitter site and I called myself Ravenmaster. Well, why not? But that was some funeral parlor in Canada. I think. Strange.
Mirsky: You're lucky that's all it was.
Skaife: Yeah. And so I called myself Ravenmaster1, and that kind of worked. So I put a picture of Merlina up, and at the time she was known as Merlin. Actually she's still known as Merlin to the Tower of London authorities, but I soon realized that she was a female. It's really hard to tell the difference between male and female in ravens, really difficult. And you have to do like DNA testing or swabbing their mouths and stuff like that. There are some subtle differences, but it's sometimes I get it wrong.
Anyway, she came from Wales, she was found by the side of the road. She's the only wild raven that we have at the Tower of London now. I don't take wild ravens in at all; only ravens are born in captivity for display, educational purposes nowadays. And she was taken in by family, they looked after her in a councilor state, she made an awful lot of noise, where the neighbors complained. So she then ended up going to a swan sanctuary. Yeah, you can imagine her in a swan sanctuary, can't you? Oh, the ugly duckling, yeah.
And they tried—they was going to use her for educational purposes, taking her around schools and colleges and stuff like that. And they was going to put some restraints on her, dress her up. She would roll on her back, wings out, stick her legs in the air, and scream like a baby. So they spent near about eight months to actually control her, but she was not having any of it. So they decided to phone up the old Ravenmaster, Derrick Coyle, and said, "We've got this raven. She's a bit of a wayward. She's a bit of a free spirit. Would you like him?" "Yeah, of course. Bring her here." We wish we never.
But so she came to the Tower of London as Merlin, 'cause she was named Merlin by the family who first found her. And after about four or five months of her being at the Tower of London we worked with the London Zoological Society and make sure the ravens are in really good health, we found out that she was a female. So on my first Twitter feed I put the name up, Merlina, and it stuck with her ever since.
Mirsky: Would you like to give a brief sketch of all the ravens?
Skaife: Yeah, absolutely. So at the moment we have six by royal decree. King Charles II stated that when he came to the throne in 1660 that six ravens should live at the Tower of London for evermore; it's myth and legend. Do we have six ravens? No, we have seven, because I'm always getting it wrong and they're always flying off, so we actually have a spare one, although I don't tell the ravens that they're spare, 'cause they can actually get quite upset.
And so at the moment we have Merlina. Merlina lives—she doesn't actually live in the enclosure. We had a lovely enclosure built about 2.5 years ago, which was designed to be able to administrate the ravens much better than we have done previously. It allows me—it's like their home. Like us when we've had a hard day's work, we want to go home, we want to put our feet up, have a bit of food, watch a bit of telly—they don't watch telly—and go to sleep. And so the enclosure is very much like that. So it encourages them to come back at nighttime. And I've changed an awful lot of how we actually look after them.
And so the only ravens that live in the enclosure at the moment is Erin and Rocky. Erin and Rocky are our dominant pair. Erin is a little bit noisy and she's quite dominant within the actual amount of ravens that we have at the Tower of London. So I kind of let them out last in the morning time and put them to bed first and stuff like that. But she's a beautiful bird. She's been with us since 2006. She has a wonderful character. She doesn't really like me, in so fact that I say that when she sees me she kinds of sticks her beak in the air and kind of walks away. She has Rocky as a partner; Rocky's been her partner now for about seven or eight years.
Rocky, really hard male name. No, he's the most scaredy-cat raven I've ever met in my life. He's massive as raven's go, but he's petrified of his own shadow. But she'll go out, and ravens are quite territorial; they'll go into their different territories around the tower, and she will sometimes push into another raven's territory, cause a little bit of ruckus and then run off and then he'll go off and deal with it afterwards. And so that—but whenever a human comes around he's off; he doesn't like that. So they're our dominant pair.
We then have Harris, who is one of our youngest, he's about a year and a half old. He's a big male bird, but is not fully adult yet. We have Gripp, spelled with two Ps. And then we have Jubilee. Jubilee Two. Jubilee One sadly disappeared. Well, actually she was eaten by a fox, so she did disappear.
So we have Merlina as well; I've just talked about Merlina. She doesn't live in the enclosure; she lives in the Queen's House. The Queen's House is a royal palace on Tower Green. It's a black-and-white Tudor-framed building built in around about 1540. It was not the wedding present, as many people say, to Queen Anne Boleyn. She was beheaded in 1536. So if you ever come to the Tower of London and the yeoman warder tells you the Queen's House was a present for Queen Anne Boleyn, it's a load of old rubbish. However, it is lived in by the constable of the Tower of London and his family and Merlina. Merlina graciously allows the constable to live there with his family.
I have tried doing the enclosure with other ravens. I've tried to pair her off with other ravens, but she has been so humanized over the years, imprinted to humans, that she's just not accepting any other raven. She thinks she's an actual human. And so she lives over there. We have had actually a night box there in the Queen's House, it's 1946, so that was when some ravens went into there then.
We do have one more raven that's joined us pretty recently; her name is Poppy. She's about six months old now. She was living with my wife and I at home for the first part of her life at the Tower. We introduced her into the enclosure and to the visitors at the Tower of London over a period of a couple of months. She's a wonderful, beautiful, intelligent raven. She has a red band on her and she's named Poppy—in fact it was my wife that named her Poppy. I get to name the ravens, which is wonderful. And we decided it was a wonderful to name it Poppy because this year we have the commemoration of the end of the First World War and we had a wonderful display of poppies in the moat in 2014. We're also doing something this year and we just thought it would be a lovely idea to commemorate those who lost their lives during that period of time, so we named her Poppy.
Mirsky: And Poppy is not in the book.
Skaife: No, Poppy is not in the book. Sadly, during the print and the work of the book one of my oldest ravens, Munin, passed away through an age-related illness. She was 23, she was a really good age, and she had been kicking around for a long time. She had had a really colorful life. She had flown away from the Tower for seven days before and was caught by a member of the public in Greenwich and returned back to the Tower of London. It's the longest time a raven has ever been away from the Tower and returned.
Now ravens pair off for life, mainly male and female, but they can pair male and male, female and female for friendship purposes. And in the case of Munin, she was then taken away from the other ravens because she had lost her partner, and we don't have that much real estate there and the others would have picked on her. She then paired up with another raven some years later called Jubilee Two and they hung around for a long time together. But he's outlived her, so that's okay.
Mirsky: So let's talk about just how intelligent they are. You have a great quote in the book from the wonderful writer David Quammen to the effect that their brains—their interactions should be studied not by ornithologists, but by psychiatrists.
Skaife: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. I mean when I first took over as the ravenmaster, you know, the old ravenmaster showed me how to clean out their enclosure and their water bowls and feed them like you do, and I never really took that much notice of what the ravens are all about. And it was over a period of time really when I started to stand around and watch them, observe them, that I actually realized how intelligent ravens are. And there have been a lot of scientific writing now about cognitive behavior and the science of ravens and that. And one of my friends, Dr. Nathan Emery's students come to the Tower of London, have been coming there for three years now, studying the ravens. We've just started a new project that's going to last for two years, looking at raven intelligence. It's an ideal location for them to actually come and study them; it's quite difficult for them to find them in the wild in the U.K., so it's ideal for them to study them in a semi-natural environment.
And so I started to look at them and I started to realize actually that ravens, very much like us, have a multitude of things that we do, and they have characteristics and personalities that we have. They are extremely—they're one of the most intelligent birds that we have actually. And I started to see empathy and pain and sorrow and anger and excitement and love. And then I started to observe them more and more and more and I started to video them.
And I think I put a video up of Merlina actually—I was sitting in an old box next to the Bloody Tower and I was stroking her beak. You may have seen it on social media. And I stopped stroking her beak and then she just pecked my hand as if to say "Don't stop" and I started stroking it again and I put my hand down she pecked me again. She'd done it four or five times. And it was just incredible, that incredible feeling of that connection, that bond that I had between this wild animal. And I keep the ravens as wild as I possibly can at the Tower of London so if they did fly off actually they'd be able to survive without any human contact. And so that's pretty cool. But this bird had completely not only connected with me, and I could stroke her and I could hear her just making these lovely sounds and it fascinated me.
But they do all sorts of things at the Tower of London that you don't expect them to do. You know, they'll wash off their crisps in the water bowls. I say that they're washing off the flavor of the crisps, they don't like the flavor. It's probably not that; it's probably something to do with the fact that the crisps are hard and they want to bury them and cache them, 'cause they cache food.
I see Merlina lying on her back, playing dead, much to the dismay and horror of the visitors that come to the Tower of London. We had two ladies the other week actually who were in tears watching Merlina lay there. She puts her wings out, her legs in the air. Honestly, she stays as still as she possibly can for as long—up to ten minutes she's just like….
And everybody walks past her, "Raven's dead. Raven's dead." And I said, "No, watch her. She's just doing it because she's either bored or she's getting a bit of a suntan." So we don't really know why ravens do it, but she is one of them that I have observed doing it, lying on her back. There was an article in a newspaper in 1904 that said that another raven, called Edgar Sopper, done the same thing. But this time the constable's wife walked out, and just as she was going to go and shake the raven it bit her. He was eventually removed from the Tower of London for biting the constable's wife. So it is something they do, and they do it in the wild as well.
But I've observed their intelligence, and the more I look at them, the more I observe them, the more I watch them the more wonderful I find that they do things that are so different. They do things exactly the same, but so differently. They don't like change, you know.
Jubilee the other week, oh, a nightmare it was; I decided to change something on one of his perches in his enclosure and he flies—he can fly anywhere he wants to. He can fly off if he wants to. I haven't trimmed him for over a year-and-a-half now, so he's in complete full flight nowadays. But every night I go up to where he's hanging out and I'll tap my stick. It's like a little wizard-type guy; it's a bit weird really. I only do it for the public display. And he'll jump off and he'll fly around the tower a couple of times and then go and land next to his enclosure, shake himself off, and go and waddle in.
But this night I changed something in his enclosure, and he flies over and he looks to see if there's anything around there, especially if Erin and Rocky haven't been to bed. And he went round and round and round and it took me five hours to even try to get him anywhere near that enclosure. I removed everything that I changed, I put everything back, and in the end he spent 2.5 days, actually it was midnight when I got him to bed before actually living outside. It was that subtle change that completely and utterly freaked him out. So that's an example.
Mirsky: And you have to let them out in the morning in a particular order and bring them in at night in a particular order or they just get a little cranky.
Skaife: Oh, goodness me, yeah. So what I try to do is I leave the dominant pair. And they do change their dominancy quite often. You know, but I let them change what they want to do. But I've spent so many years observing them now and I've got it wrong so many times, I know which ones are the dominant pair, so I leave them in last or let all the other ravens go out to their territories and then I let the dominant pair out. And at nighttime I do it exactly the same way, but I get the dominant pair in first, so they're in and all the other ravens afterwards.
Mirsky: We're going to open it up for questions in just one second. There's something I need to know, because in the book you talk about the fact that if anybody's scheduling a visit to see the ravens you insist that they bring dog biscuits because that's a real treat for them. But you don't give them the dog biscuits straight out of the box; you soak them for an hour in blood. But you don't say whose blood.
Skaife: No, I don't. So yeah, I feed the ravens a diet—I've changed their diet over the years, of course. I get my meats from Smithfield's Meat Market, some of it nowadays; not all of it. We used to get all of it from there, but now they have a much more enrichment diet of mice, rats. So I feed them day-old chicks. I feed them in the enclosure nowadays rather than—we used to chuck the food out around the tower when the public were there. There's nothing worse than 50 children screaming at the sight of a little chick having its head ripped off.
There was one occasion where we used to feed them liver. I have no idea why we did. And one day we used to lose a lot of our food to seagulls, they'd come and gulp it and fly off of them. And one day the seagull had picked up this large bit of liver like this and I was sitting in the Bloody Tower box, just minding my own business, talking to this lady actually, and this seagull dropped it from a great height. Use your imaginations now, as this piece of liver slid down this woman's face. It was a treat at the Tower of London. So I don't feed them liver anymore. So I feed them in the enclosure because I can actually get them to bed at nighttime by the use of food.
If you do come to the Tower of London please bring biscuits. If you want to come and visit me I have a stack of biscuits in my store. We was actually going to call the book Biscuits and Blood, but if you've ever googled that you come up with some very strange answers, so we decided to go with the safer option of The Ravenmaster. But I do give them biscuits soaked in blood; it's something that I absolutely do for a treat, along with eggs and all sorts of stuff—or sandwiches that they steal.
Mirsky: So anybody got any questions? I'll run into the audience with the mic so that everybody can hear you.
Audience: So you didn't actually answer the question; whose blood is it?
Skaife: Small children's. Yeah, so it's actually blood that I get—I do give them lamb's hearts and pig's hearts, so it's blood from my—I have some spare blood left over from that. But I like the first answer.
Audience: Do the ravens that are paired up ever breed and lay eggs?
Skaife: No. For the simple fact that they can do and I wouldn't stop them doing that, but because we have nearly three million visitors that come to the Tower of London each year, ravens are quite solitary; they like to do their business away from the public eye. And if they do go for the process of building a nest normally what they do, in the past certainly, the last breeding program that we had at the Tower of London was about 30 years ago, where we had I think 15 eggs that were actually hatched. They destroyed some of them, so we didn't really like that.
One of the first ravens that was actually born at the Tower of London, we gave it to a children's program to name it and they called it Ronald Raven. So you can tell how old that was, yeah, from your prime minister.
So no, we don't at the moment. I say at the moment. Watch this space.
Audience: Aside from the Tower of London, where might one find ravens? And for us New Yorkers, are the ravens in New York City?
Skaife: Yeah, absolutely. You've got a gentleman sitting right next to you there, a guy called Gabriel Willow; we went raven hunting—actually bird hunting. He's an urban naturalist, a brilliant guy. He's over there. And we went actually looking around New York about two weeks ago. There's an article actually in The New Yorker that's just come out today—yesterday—Willow—Gabriel, was it?
Audience: Today. It was _____.
Skaife: Yeah. And it was about us walking around, looking for ravens. We actually saw one. I don't know, Gabriel will say that there are more ravens moving into New York, into the suburbs and areas of the city. I think you saw some in Central Park as well, haven't you? Yep. So they're coming in. But the lovely thing is, I mean he takes tours around the city, looking at your wonderful wildlife that you have in the city. And so he's here tonight. Thank you very much for coming.
Mirsky: And the ravens are coming back in England and you expect that the population is increasing and maybe you'll get some wild visitors?
Skaife: I don't know; I mean I—yes, I'd like to see wild ravens coming back into urban areas. They're doing really well at the moment in the U.K. and they are slowly coming back over to the eastern side of the country. We do have pairs of ravens breeding down the south coast now. There's not that many, but they've increased their numbers. I think there's about 12,500 breeding pairs in the U.K. at the moment. RSPB said there's 7,500; I think there's more than that. They have a tendency to be over in the more isolated areas, although I think we have breeding pairs about 20 to 25 miles outside of London in the suburbs now. So they are coming back, much to the annoyance of people who use them for gaming and stuff like that, game hunters and stuff like that. Ravens can be quite difficult to look after in great numbers.
Audience: I know that sometimes corvids are known for collecting things or giving gifts to people. Have they brought you anything interesting?
Skaife: Yes. Normally rat's tails. Yeah, so they do actually bring me—certainly Merlina does and Poppy does as well. Poppy, at the moment she's only very young, she's a kleptomaniac; she'll collect anything. She found an old Second World War heel from a soldier's leather heel the other day. Erin likes purses; she'll open up a child's purse, steal the pound coins. In fact I had—last year she stole five-pound coins out of a purse and she can work out how to open up the clip, and she buried the pound coins all around the tower. In fact, I had to go into my own pocked and pay the child back afterwards, 'cause I couldn't find them.
Merlina will steal sandwiches. The thing is she comes running to me once she's stolen it. And I do mention in the book how I kind of look at it like a military operation when she's stealing the sandwich 'cause she's so adept at doing it nowadays. But she comes running over to me and the visitors look at me as if to say, "Have you trained that raven to steal that sandwich?" Yeah. I am working on notes at the moment, so five and ten pound notes. But we haven't quite got there yet.
Audience: I was wondering how the book came about. Obviously the Twitter became popular first and people love the ravens, but was that something you had ever pictured yourself or imagined doing, writing a book? And when someone put it to you like what were your thoughts and feelings? Like how did that all come together?
Skaife: Wow. Yeah, absolutely. No, I had no idea. I mean I knew that people loved corvids from around the world and I see my role as what I do as educational. And the only reason that I do it at the Tower of London is for educational purposes. Yes, the myths and the legends are there and stuff like that, which is all well and good, and I'm a storyteller and I love to tell them, but if we can let people know how wonderful ravens are around the environment that we live in then, you know, it's my little way of trying to save the environment that we live in by educating the children that come to Tower of London, the parents and that about how wonderful birds are, corvids are and how we should be looking after them.
I was drinking a pint of beer in our club at the Tower of London; we have a private bar there. I was with an American gentleman and some friends actually, and I've done a little bit of writing stuff before, but only personal stuff. And he said, "Why don't you write about your life and the ravens? Someone might be interested—or lots of people would be interested in that." He was an American actually. And so he was an American publisher, and some of them are here tonight—hello, folks. And so the Americans got it before the British did, much to the annoyance of the British. And so I put some stuff down and I've had some wonderful people that have helped me out. I left school at 14, dragged into the military, so, you know, I type like this, and so I've had some wonderful people to help me out to do it.
But yeah, I didn't think that anybody would be interested and listen to what I have to say, but apparently people are, which is absolutely—I'm overwhelmed by it.
Mirsky: Jasmine Skaife, do you have any comments?
Jasmine Skaife: Yeah, shut up.
Mirsky: Well, with that let's call it a night.
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