The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London by Christopher Skaife
The Ravenmaster was published in 2018. It’s nonfiction and it isn’t particularly about science, even the science of ravens. It’s got some history, some memoir, and some ghosts, but it isn’t about those things. I’m reviewing it here for one reason only: ravens.
Christopher Skaife, who authored The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London, is the Yeoman Warder of the Tower, and his first responsibility is caring for the seven ravens who currently inhabit the compound. He also, along with several other warders, gives tours to the public. Skaife has a YouTube presence and a twitter account (@ravenmaster1) if you want to see and hear more.
In the book, Skaife’s narrative voice comes through perfectly: clear, humorous — often at his own expense — knowledgeable, somewhat humble. His admiration for the birds in his care is immediately obvious. Skaife is not an ornithologist or a biologist, but he’s been around these birds a long time now, and he’s read a lot about ravens on his own time. Along with stories of his early life, and tales of the Tower of London, he shares facts about the ravens and their care.
And The Ravenmaster is liberally sprinkled with anecdotes that showcase the personalities of the various birds. He explains how the Tower gets its birds, what they feed them, and what their daily routine is. And routine is very important to these birds.
Although the ravens are well fed, it doesn’t stop them from foraging (read: stealing food from tourists). Merlina, a raven who is “humanized,” as Skaife says (we might say “imprinted on humans”) has a taste for potato chips and has been known to steal Pringles containers from people, as you can see a raven doing here. Skaife also discusses the distinct personalities of the birds. Munin, an older female who, despite not being part of a pair, seems to assert some dominance among the other ravens, dislikes Skaife, he says, while Merlina has bonded with him.
Skaife also talks about the history of the site and examines the story of how ravens came to be at the Tower. The common story is that Charles II decreed that there would always be ravens at the Tower, in fact there would be at least six, and if the ravens fled the tower the kingdom would fall. Skaife points out that there is no documentation or contemporaneous collaboration for this story (and no existing decree); in fact, the first written reference to ravens at the tower appears in the late 1800s. Skaife has his own theories about why the ravens became popular, which he reminds us several times are only personal theories.
I enjoyed the anecdotes and the fun facts about these intriguing birds. Since it’s at least partially memoir, Skaife includes himself as a character, talking about his youth and his army career. If I had a disappointment, it came from a statement he makes early in the book, when he talks about how he has pushed, even at the risk of his career, for improvements to the care of the birds. He never calls out examples, although I think at least two are mentioned: better night enclosures for the ravens, and a less drastic trimming of the birds’ foreflight feathers. These ravens can fly. They can and do leave the Tower, although it’s never good when they do.
Skaife’s love for the birds and his job comes through in every page of The Ravenmaster. The book is slightly over 200 pages, perfect for a weekend getaway or a couple of cold winter nights, cuddled up with a blanket and a hot chocolate or a hot toddy.