THUS QUOTH THE RAVENMASTER – By ELLIN CURLEY

In this work, there are some unusual professions. Many of them exist within the British Royal Household, like Keeper of the Queen’s Stamps, Grand Carver, and Royal Clock Winder. However, the one that caught my eye was written about on October 21, 2018, in the Washington Post: Ravenmaster.

The Ravenmaster cares for the seven ravens who reside at the Tower of London, the 11th-century fortress that is one of Britain’s most popular tourist sites. It was a prison and an execution site for many nobles — Anne Boleyn being a primary example.

The Tower holds numerous lurid stories throughout its long and brutal history, though it was originally built as a tower for the earliest royal family (post-Norman invasion).

Christopher Skaife in his regular Ravenmaster uniform

Ravens seem to have started living at the Tower in the Victorian era when the Gothic Revival was in full swing. Charles Dickens kept a raven as a pet.

The Tower birds are now celebrities in their own right and they receive loving and meticulous care from the current Ravenmaster, Christopher Skaife. He gives them treats of dog biscuits soaked in blood and he has had to climb parts of the Tower to retrieve rogue ravens.

Treats for the ravens

Mr. Skaife was a machine gunner in the British Army for 24 years and then became a Yeoman Warder, one of 37 élite guards who are keepers of tradition and tour guides. He now lives at the Tower with his family. It must be fun for his kids to bring friends ‘home’ for playdates!

The Tower ravens come from bird breeders. They are wild, though acclimated to humans. They roam free during the day. At night, Skaife has to round them up and put them in airy enclosures to protect them from foxes, who ate two ravens in 2013.

Night enclosures

In the morning, Skaife releases the birds in careful order, from least dominant to the most dominant. The birds apparently have a very strict hierarchy which the Ravenmaster must respect. They have also divided the tower into individual territories according to that hierarchy.

Ceremonial Ravenmaster uniform

The birds are scavengers and like to rummage through the trash cans. They are particularly fond of potato chips but they don’t like the flavored kind, like cheddar or onion. So they wash the flavored chips in puddles to get rid of the extra flavoring, which is very clever! Ravens are surprisingly bright compared to other birds, probably on par with parrots.

They are also known to steal sandwiches from children.

Ravens at Tower

Ravens can fly but not too far or too often. They can fly to the roof or the ramparts, but that’s about it. Previous caregivers would trim their feathers so they couldn’t fly at all. But one bird, on Skaife’s watch, climbed up some scaffolding and leaped off it. He died in Skaife’s arms so Skaife will no longer limit the ravens’ flight.

Once one raven did manage to escape the Tower and flew down the Thames River. She was captured by a local birdwatcher who recognized the bracelet on her leg as belonging to the Tower flock. The Good Samaritan put the raven in her gym bag and returned her to her home.

Raven at the Tower

I love all animals so this job caught my imagination. While not the cutest or friendliest of birds, it must be gratifying to preserve a long-held tradition at a historically famous site. Caring for a ‘conspiracy’ or an ‘unkindness’ of ravens, the words for a group of ravens is clearly not a job for everyone.

After eleven years, Christopher Skaife is still going strong at his job. He’s even written an autobiography. Who knew that being a Ravenmaster could be the route to becoming a published author!

12 thoughts on “THUS QUOTH THE RAVENMASTER – By ELLIN CURLEY

    • The British are so into tradition, I’m not surprised that this unique one has been carried on for centuries. The Tower of London is so seeped in history, you sense it all around you there. The English are very good at preserving places so well that they evoke the past on a visceral level. You can imagine how prisoners lived in the dungeons and can picture the beheading of Anne Boleyn. It’s an amazing place.

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  1. That is a book I would be interested in reading. There is a superstition that if the ravens leave the Tower of London the crown will fall and Britain with it which must be why previous custodians clipped their wings.

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  2. I occasionally have read about the ravens and also from earlier skiing holidays in the Swiss Alps I’ve encountered quite a number of ravens. They are VERY impressive birds and beyond any doubt very clever too. So the chips washing is no surprise to me.
    Thank you for shedding more light on these astonishing (and rather frightful) birds and their Master. Great post.

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    • Many birds are extremely intelligent but I never thought that ravens were in this category. These birds spend a lot of time with the Ravenmaster so he can learn about their individual personalities and can observe many of the smart and clever things that they can do. I don’t think too many people keep ravens as pets so this is probably a fairly rare chance to observe these birds in their habitat.

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