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 Contributing Photographer Martin Usborne & I decided to pay an early morning call upon London’s most pampered birds 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.”
“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.
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