insight - Chris Skaife, Ravenmaster
Written by Ron Toft
Occupation - Ravenmaster
‘Unique’ is an overworked and often inaccurately used word, but it is certainly an appropriate one to describe Chris Skaife’s job.
Former soldier Chris is Ravenmaster at the Tower of London – the Yeoman Warder, or Beefeater, charged by the Crown with looking after the Tower’s amusing and often mischievous ravens.
There have been ravens – big, black, buzzard-sized crows – at the Tower for centuries, but no-one knows precisely when or how they arrived at the fortress-cum-palace.
Certainly ravens were present in the 17th century during the reign of Charles II, for at one time the Merry Monarch is said to have ordered them to be destroyed following a complaint from astronomer John Flamsteed that the birds interfered with his observations of the heavens from one of the turrets of the White Tower.
Charles II reprieved the ravens, however, after being warned that killing the birds would result in disaster befalling both the Tower and his kingdom. In fact, the king decreed that at least six ravens should be kept at the tower as insurance against possible future catastrophes.
The ravens were nearly wiped out during World War II, with only one bird, Grip, surviving the Nazi’s aerial bombardment of London. Numbers were only built up again after the war.
Today, eight ravens strut their stuff in the grounds of the Tower, much to the delight of the 2.5 million tourists who flock annually to this perennially popular tourist attraction.
Each raven has a name and coloured leg ring. Oldest of the current line-up is 17-year-old Munin, while the youngest is Pearl, who is less than six months old. Both are female birds.
Chris (45) officially became Ravenmaster in April of this year, taking over from Ray ‘Rocky’ Stones, who stepped down early on account of ill-health.
“I’d retired from the Army after nearly 25 years’ service and just started studying for an archaeology degree at Sussex University when one of the caretakers at my place of work, knowing of my lifelong fascination with history, suggested I apply to become a Yeoman Warder.
“To be even considered for such a position, you are required to have served in the Forces for a minimum of 22 years, have an exemplary record and attained the rank of warrant officer or its equivalent. I applied, attended several interviews, and a year down the line was lucky enough to be accepted.”
Chris, who says he now combines his hobby with his work, started working as one of the Tower of London’s famous Beefeaters in September 2005.
“I had long known about the Tower’s ravens. Derrick Coyle, who was Ravenmaster when I first became a Yeoman Warder, could see I was interested in the birds and asked if I would like to become one of his assistants. I jumped at the chance of joining the raven team, of which I have been a member for five years.”
As Ravenmaster, Chris is responsible for all aspects of the birds’ care – releasing them from and returning them to their cages at the start and end of every day, preparing food, cleaning cages, ensuring the birds are fit and healthy, and fielding all manner of questions about the ravens asked by members of the public.
The Tower’s ravens are as different from one another in terms of character as are people. “Some are timid and prefer to shy away, while others are very bold and interact much more with visitors,” Chris tells Oryx. “All of them are very intelligent. It takes years for the birds to really get to know members of the raven team and for us to get to know them and their idiosyncratic ways.”
The ravens can distinguish Chris and his three Assistant Ravenmasters from their fellow Yeoman Warders, and tend to keep their distance from other people.
“We prefer it that way,” says Chris. “If they interacted too closely with other members of staff, or visitors, they might become too friendly, beg for food, and possibly peck if food wasn’t given.”
Ravens are opportunistic omnivores in the wild, eating whatever they come across, including carrion. The Tower’s birds enjoy a similarly varied diet – six ounces of raw meat and bird formula biscuits soaked in blood every day. Once a week they are given an egg, and occasionally they are treated to a whole rabbit – fur and all. They also love fried bread, are quite partial to cauliflower and broccoli and, given the chance, will eat chips until they come out of their ears!
Raven Merlin has developed a taste for crisps, recently snatching a family-size pack from a tourist and sharing the contents with other ravens. “She doesn’t like some of the flavoured crisps though,” says Chris, “especially the beef ones, which she washes first in water to get rid of the flavour!”
Chris learned a valuable lesson last year: never trust a raven. The ‘lifting’ feathers of the Tower’s birds are usually trimmed to prevent them from escaping, but Chris decided to let some of Munin’s flight feathers grow back so she could behave more naturally. Munin found flying very much to her liking and promptly departed. Two days later she was spotted at the Royal Greenwich Observatory, but defied all attempts to catch her.
Chuckles Chris: “I spent a lot of time wandering around Greenwich Park whistling up at trees – much to the amusement of passers-by who must have thought I was crackers.”
Munin was eventually recaptured in a Greenwich garden after a local resident enticed her down with chicken and then threw a cloth over her. She was confined to her cage for the next four months and not allowed out again until her feathers had been trimmed.
Chris sums up: “The Tower of London’s ravens are part of our national heritage. Looking after them is fascinating, as well as being a great privilege.”
Size – it’s all relative...
Rhys & George
Raven Rhys used to pull ribbons from young girls’ hair. His party trick during frosty or snowy weather was putting his feet inside a plastic plant pot, flipping onto his back, and sliding down a grassy slope. He could even bark!
Loner George would often get onto the roof of the doctor’s house at the Tower. Once, while the doctor was watching a rugby match on TV, he bit through a cable. After doing the same thing again a couple of weeks later, he was banished to the Welsh Mountain Zoo – ‘conduct unbecoming, service therefore no longer required’. After a while, George took a fancy to another raven, laid an egg, and was promptly renamed Georgina!
The ravens’ afternoon feeding session – one of the Tower’s visitor highlights – takes place between 1pm and 5pm daily, depending on the Ravenmaster’s duties, which include conducting general tours.
HM Tower of London, EC3N 4AB. www.hrp.org.uk