How the ravenmaster of London protects the kingdom with birds
'For the preservation of the ravens ... I've done some pretty crazy things,' says Christopher Skaife
Originally published on October 30, 2018
There must always be at least six ravens living at the Tower of London or else, great harm will befall the kingdom, so says the legend.
That makes Christopher Skaife's job as the tower's ravenmaster a vital one.
"How many ravenmasters are there in the world," he asked The Current's guest host Laura Lynch.
"I think officially I am the only one," he said, calling it the best job in England.
In his new memoir The Ravenmaster: My Life With The Ravens At The Tower of London, Yeoman Warder Skaife — a royal bodyguard — details his decades-long career and his time spent learning from the corvids.
Ravens were once a common sight across England, but their numbers have dwindled. Skaife, who lives in the tower, sees the role of the ravens as partly educational for the three million visitors to the tower every year.
"They need to be looked at, observed and watched in awe at how beautiful they are and how intelligent they are," he said.
A pivotal moment
Skaife has a close relationship with the seven ravens he cares for, especially the independent-minded Merlina. But his aim is to keep them as wild as possible by letting the ravens fly freely and enticing them back with food — dead mice, dead rats and biscuits soaked in blood — and the comforts of the enclosure.
Before Skaife took over as ravenmaster, the ravens' flight feathers were trimmed to keep them close to home. Now Skaife uses what he calls "feather management," trimming as little as possible and allowing the birds to fly for exercise, adventure and safety.
The change was inspired in part by one of Skaife's hardest days on the job.
After two of the ravens, Munin and Thor, hopped to the top of scaffolding in place for repair work, Skaife climbed up to help them down.
I picked him up and held him to my chest and he died in my arms.- Christopher Skaife, Tower of London ravenmaster
But the birds then jumped. Munin was lighter and glided to safety; Thor landed hard on the floor many storeys below.
"By the time I actually got down to him, I could see that he was, you know, he was dying," Skaife said.
"I picked him up and held him to my chest and he died in my arms. And from that moment onwards, I said to myself, 'If I ever take over as ravenmaster, this is never going to happen again."
Don't mess with the 'pecking order'
In caring for the ravens, Skaife has got into some precarious situations.
For example, he must respect the ravens' "pecking order."
"I let the non-dominant ones out first so they can go to their territories around the tower, and at night time, I do that in reverse," Skaife told Lynch.
"When I mess with it, all hell breaks loose — chaos, absolute chaos."
He learned the hard way you don't mess with the order.
A few years ago, Skaife had dinner plans for his birthday and in a rush, he put the birds in the enclosure out of order for bedtime.
The two dominant birds, Erin and Rocky, witnessed the deviation, and flew up high, forcing Skaife to chase after them. As he climbed, he slipped on a wet beam in the dark.
"It was a 'man issue' that I hurt myself on that was extremely painful," Skaife explained. "I smashed myself between my legs."
Erin and Rocky looked at Skaife.
"They was laughing at me," he said. "They was looking at me going, 'what a silly old man down there, what is he doing.'"
Skaife still had Merlina to put to bed. But he couldn't find her.
After an hour searching in the December rain, he spotted her squeezed into the "Pit of Doom" — a tight nook between tower walls that fills with stagnant water, garbage and dead pigeons.
Skaife climbed down the rickety wooden steps to reach Merlina but the wood splintered on the third step, and he fell upside down into the murky water.
"I can remember this pigeon carcass floating past my eyes," he said, recalling that Merlina, too, laughed at him.
"For the preservation of the ravens and the safety of the kingdom, I've done some pretty crazy things."
Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.
Written and produced by Karin Marley.