Meet the ravens in charge of guarding the Tower of London
LONDON, U.K. — The Tower of London has been a fixture on the banks of the River Thames for a thousand years.
The former castle and prison is now a popular tourist attraction, with three million visitors a year, and many naturally wonder how the UNESCO World Heritage Site has managed to survive centuries of wars and conflict.
If you ask those who live and work at the fortress, they’ll point to the castle’s black-beaked protectors: six ravens have been the official guardians of the Tower of London for centuries.
The tradition is believed to have been started by the superstitious King Charles II during his reign in the 17th century. Today, the ravens are treated like royalty, with their own full-time staff led by the ‘Ravenmaster’ Christopher Skaife.
“They get treated very well. I look after them 365 days a year,” said Skaife, dressed in the traditional round-brimmed hat and tunic that comprise the “Beefeater” guard official uniform.
Skaife served for more than 20 years in the British infantry, before joining the Tower team. He said the ravens took a liking to him and he was asked to take on the unconventional role.
“To be the Ravenmaster is unique,” he said. “I was voted the oddest job in Britain a couple of years ago. There is only one of me, as far as I know.”
Skaife cleans the ravens’ cages and prepares their meals (rats are a favourite entrée).
But his most important function is to ensure the ravens don’t fly the coop; their wings are partially clipped as a precaution. Legend has it that if the ravens were to ever leave the fortress, the Tower would fall and the kingdom along with it.
And they recently had a close call.
“One of our ravens passed away this year,” Skaife explained. Eight-year-old Porsha suffered from a congenital heart condition.
“We had to have her put to sleep and she died in my arms. It was very sad indeed.”
But there was little time to mourn the loss; tradition demanded that Porsha be promptly replaced.
Four-month-old Harris has just arrived, joining Melina, Muninn, Jubilee, Erin, Rocky and Gripp in the royal raven conspiracy. (There are seven ravens in total: six guardians and a “spare”).
“Harris has settled in the tower extraordinarily well. In, fact better than most ravens have in a long, long time.”
Skaife said his job is about protecting the past, while also looking to the future.
“I thought it would be a good idea to share some of the stories, the myths and legends, with a wider audience.”
In 2011, he created a Twitter page where he regularly posts photos and videos of the ravens and which has since grown to more than 20,000 followers.
He’s also teamed-up with a group of researchers at Queen Mary University of London, who are putting his ravens through a series of cognitive tests. Scientists recently discovered that ravens are as intelligent as chimps, despite having significantly smaller brains.
That might explain how the Tower of London has survived for so long. Kings and queens come and go, but these feathered guardians rule the roost.
© 2016 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.