Relative to their body size, ravens have the biggest brains of just about any birds in the world. For evidence of their intelligence, you need look no further than the storeroom which is my inner sanctum as Ravenmaster at the Tower of London.
Alongside the fishing net which is handy for raven-catching in case of emergency, there is the freezer that contains assorted meats such as mice, rats and day-old chicks.
We have an old version of the classic children’s game Kerplunk. In the raven edition, the challenge for the birds is to remove the straws in order to win a dead mouse, which I place in the tube, ready to fall down and be eaten.
Chris Skaife, Master Raven Keeper at the Tower of London, pictured with Merlina the raven
The reigning champion is Munin, who, at 23, is the oldest and longest-serving of the seven ravens at the Tower.
She came here in 1995 when she was only six weeks old and has had three partners. As two of them are now dead, she is affectionately known as the Black Widow and currently has a younger partner, five-year-old Jubilee. All I can do is wish him well.
I have something of a troubled relationship with Munin. Sometimes I think she hates me.
She has been giving me the run-around for years and, since research suggests that ravens can recognise human faces, I can only assume that I did something horrendous in my early days at the Tower for which she has never forgiven me.
I started working here as a Yeoman Warder, as we Beefeaters are properly known, in 2005.
All of us, servicemen and women, have long records of unblemished service — in my case, almost 25 years as an infantryman.
That took me all over the world and eventually to the Tower of London, with its bloody history of murder, torture and, of course, ravens.
Without them, the legend goes, great harm will befall the kingdom and the Tower itself will crumble into dust.
The Daily Mail’s Robert Hardman (right) with Yoeman Raven Warder Chris Skaife and Tower of London Raven Merlin on Tower Green
This fate would be particularly unfortunate for us Yeoman Warders because our homes are in the outer battlements.
For me, my wife and our daughter, it’s like living anywhere else — except that we have arrow slits for windows, our walls are 50ft high and we are locked in at night.
When I first arrived at the Tower, I knew almost nothing about birds and my only contact with the ravens was when our large grey Persian cat, Tigger, sat on top of their cages, dangling a paw through the bars and teasing them.
Merlina and the poppy memorial
In the summer of 2014, the moat was filled with ceramic poppies to commemorate the centenary of the start of World War I.
Every evening at sunset, a Yeoman Warder would walk out into the sea of poppies and read out 180 names of the fallen, followed by the Last Post. When it was my turn, I had to fight back tears.
It was one of the proudest moments of my life.
One fine sunny morning, as volunteers were positioning the poppies around the moat, Merlina flew out of the Tower to see what all the fuss was about.
Alerted by the control room, I found her perched on an old iron fence overlooking the poppies and cronking loudly.
I seized her with the speed of a striking cobra and, as I returned with her to Tower Green, I could hear the crowd murmuring, some in approval, some in disapproval and others in sheer disbelief.
I knew that before long videos of me would be appearing all over social media.
Like it or not, if you’re a small, middle-aged man in a wide-brimmed bonnet, wearing a royal blue and scarlet dress — it’s called a tabard, people — trying to catch a raven, that’s inevitable. But I was glad Merlina had seen the poppies.
This earned me a telling-off by the then Ravenmaster, Derrick Coyle, a former Regimental Sergeant Major.
‘Get that damned cat off the cages or the birds will have it for dinner!’ he’d yell.
Surely, I thought, it should be the other way around? But years later, I’ve realised just how right Derrick was. More than once I’ve seen a raven chasing a resident’s cat or dog around Tower Green.
Beneath his harsh military exterior, Derrick was the kindest of men and one evening he told me that he thought the ravens might like me.
I followed him to their quarters — where he told me to get inside a cage with two of the biggest birds I had ever seen, two-and-a-half times the size of your average crow.
‘Don’t look them directly in the eye,’ Derrick said. ‘And don’t get too close. They find it threatening.’
They find it threatening? I knew from the other Yeoman Warders that the ravens are powerful and unpredictable creatures with a savage peck, and I had no intention of getting too near. But suddenly one of the birds came and perched right next to me.
I could feel its breath on my face and wondered if I should move slowly away, but to my surprise the raven simply cocked its head from side to side, then dipped its head as if in a bow, thrust out its wings and made a cronking sound.
‘You’ll do,’ said Derrick, hauling me out of the cage. ‘Meet me tomorrow at 05.30 hours.’
And that was that. I’d passed the interview and was taken under Derrick’s wing as an assistant Ravenmaster.
In the coming years I noticed how he and his successor, Ravenmaster ‘Rocky’ Stones, talked about the birds all the time, as if nothing else mattered. For a long time I thought this was weird but now I’m Ravenmaster, I understand. The ravens are my life.
Mentions of the ravens at the Tower go back a long way. One account describes how ravens were seen gazing on the scene when Queen Anne Boleyn was executed in 1536.
Back then, ravens were ubiquitous but by the 19th century they had become regarded as pests and were hunted almost to extinction.
The Tower of London: Mr Skaife lives in the outer battlements with his wife and daughter
Today, ravens are making a comeback throughout Britain but mainly in the Scottish Highlands, the Welsh hills and the uplands of northern England. The Tower is one of the few places in the UK you’re likely to see them — which makes my job as Ravenmaster all the more important.
The birds at the Tower range in age from a two-year-old male named Harris to 23-year-old Munin. But my closest bond is with 12-year-old Merlina.
Although our ravens generally come from breeders, she was found by a Welsh roadside and cared for by a family until she became too difficult to handle.
She has since settled happily into a celebrity lifestyle at the Tower, with her own followers on social media and letters and gifts sent to her by fans all over the world.
Merlina likes playing with sticks while rolling on her back and doing forward-rolls. She is also adept at mimicking strange sounds to get what she wants.
This is a particular talent of ravens and there is nothing more embarrassing than walking around the Tower with a group of schoolchildren and suddenly having a raven hopping up to you and saying: ‘B****r off! B****r off!’
Ghosts at the Tower
Our most famous resident ghost at the Tower is Anne Boleyn.
She has been spotted many times near the Queen’s House and the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula on the anniversary of her death.
I remember when my wife and I first arrived and were living in a flat on Tower Green.
I woke one early morning and felt compelled to look out of our bedroom window, to see a shadow moving along the path to the Chapel. Was it her? I don’t know. It was certainly someone, or something.
On another morning, perfectly still, I had just let Merlina out of her night-box when the door behind me suddenly slammed shut as if someone wanted to get my attention.
I nearly leapt out of my skin. The door has never banged like that before or since. Not once. Another story? One evening, I was shepherding the ravens to bed when I noticed a small girl sitting on the bench by their enclosure, watching me closely.
Aged about ten, she had mousey brown hair and was wearing modern clothes. Since the Tower had shut, she wasn’t likely to be some stranded visitor and I didn’t recognise her as one of the residents’ children.
I’ve often felt a bit uncomfortable in this part of the Tower, but I try not to dwell on that fact.
Unsure what to say, I asked politely if she could move, because the ravens would be unwilling to enter the enclosure if she didn’t. She looked up at me and smiled slightly, but said nothing. I wondered if perhaps there was something wrong with her.
Anyway, I thought I’d deal with the ravens first, so I unlocked Munin and Jubilee’s enclosure, which takes just a moment. When I turned back, the girl had disappeared. It would have been impossible for her to have walked past me without my noticing, but she was gone. Vanished.
I was so unnerved I went to look for her, searching the entire Inner Ward, an area enclosed by a massive wall and 13 towers.
I found nothing, and to this day, no one knows anything about that little girl.
Much to the confusion of the local crows, Merlina is an expert at imitating their call to get them down from the trees to play with her. She also has a knack for impersonating gulls, but as far as I can tell, that’s just to annoy them.
I’ve learnt to become a mimic myself. I’m hardly Dr Dolittle, but Merlina and I have developed this ‘Kn-ck kn-ck’ call that we make to each other.
She’ll call for me, ‘Kn-ck kn-ck.’ And I’ll call back, ‘Kn-ck kn-ck.’
She seems to find it reassuring. It’s like us saying: ‘Hey, I’m over here if you need me.’
Sometimes, I spot her and make this noise when I’m out of uniform, earning me a few strange looks from tourists.
Merlina is a bit of a loner. I think of her as the Tower Princess because she refuses to socialise with any other raven, or sleep with the others in the fox-proof enclosure I had built for them when I became Ravenmaster in 2011.
She prefers one of the old night boxes in which the ravens used to bed down, her favourite being next to an old leaded window of the Queen’s House on Tower Green, where she graciously allows the Constable of the Tower and his family to live, too.
The first thing I do every morning is to scan the rooftops for Merlina. There is always that moment of fear — I call out to her . . . silence . . . I call out again, then I see her, a silhouette against the blue-grey sky. Then, when I’m satisfied all is well, I give her and the other birds breakfast. Offered a choice, I fancy that they would probably survive on junk food.
Merlina has a knack for spotting — from the other side of Tower Green — members of the public eating Pringles. Stealing the tube and popping off the lid to cram as many into her mouth as possible, she will even take them to the nearest water bowl and give them a wash if she doesn’t like the taste.
Alongside whatever treats she and the other birds can purloin, they get through about a ton and a half of meat a year.
I buy much of the meat from the market at Smithfield but, on occasion, I give the ravens a boiled egg or — as a special treat — dog biscuits soaked in a container of blood for an hour. Bon appetit!
Having fed the ravens, I let them out for the day and from then on I think about them all the time.
Being the Ravenmaster is like going to a supermarket with seven young children all running off in different directions, and life isn’t made easier by Munin.
One of her favourite games is hiding from me in the evenings — when it’s time to put the ravens to bed, especially if it’s raining and I’m exhausted.
Indeed, it was Munin who was responsible for one of my most difficult experiences as Ravenmaster, in an episode I would call The Great Escape.
To encourage the birds to stay with us, I have changed the way we trim their feathers so that, although they can’t achieve full flight, they have more freedom of movement and get more exercise than ever before.
In theory, this change should keep them at the Tower. But in October 2010, I’d allowed Munin’s feathers to grow a little too much, just at a time when the White Tower was undergoing restoration work.
One day, perhaps fed up with all the noise, she flew away. I felt awful, as the days brought no reports of a raven hanging around London or chilling out with the pigeons in Trafalgar Square. I felt I had let down the Queen, the Tower and the other ravens.
But then came a call from the control room.
A gentleman who lived near Greenwich Park, in South-East London, was claiming he’d caught a raven and was holding it under house arrest. I raced down there with an assistant and knocked on his front door.
‘I think I may have one of your ravens in my kitchen,’ he said. And there she was, the escapee, secured in a sports bag with her head poking out and her beady little eyes looking inquisitively around the room.
Tradition: Two ravens pictured in the Tower of London in the 1960s
The man had managed to capture Munin using only a holdall and a blanket — together with a thick pair of gardening gloves and some chicken legs to tempt her.
Thanking him for helping us to save the kingdom, we placed Munin in her travel box and made our way back to the Tower, where I reflected on an important lesson. Never underestimate the ravens.
I often try to see the Tower through their eyes: the sheer looming mass of the buildings, like cliffs, and the continual hubbub of sound, like the howl of the tundra; all those potential playmates and the ever-present threat of predators.
We will never know all of what goes on inside their heads but they certainly seem to have the capacity to remember.
When Derrick Coyle visited the Tower some seven years after leaving as Ravenmaster, for example, Merlina came straight to him. It was as if he’d never been away. Seven years!
Following my time in the Army, caring for the ravens has meant becoming a part of another family — learning to trust and be trusted —and doing what I can to the best of my ability when they need my help.
And if you have enjoyed reading about my life with these remarkable creatures, perhaps I can ask a small favour.
Years from now, long after our current ravens have gone, and I, too, have passed on to that great raven enclosure in the sky, you may be visiting the Tower. Perhaps there will be a raven there named after me, and this Skaife may be looking at you in that way only ravens can.
Don’t get too close — he may bite. But say hello from me.
Kn-ck, kn-ck. Kn-ck, kn-ck.
- Adapted from The Ravenmaster: My Life With The Ravens At The Tower Of London, by Christopher Skaife, published tomorrow by Fourth Estate at £14.99 © Christopher Skaife 2018. To order a copy for £11.99 (offer valid to 11/10/18), visit www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640.