I met Christopher Skaife a few years ago while recording a radio program about Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” A jovial, bearded man, he’s one of the yeoman warders at the Tower of London. As such he is a member of an ancient and soldierly profession. For the past 13 years he has also been the site’s ravenmaster, which easily tops my list of favorite job titles (unicef’s “head of knowledge” comes in second). On Twitter, as @Ravenmaster1, he curates a much-loved feed packed with images of the birds in his care: raven beaks holding information leaflets, photos of the feathers on their broad backs, close-ups of their varied expressions, videos of their gentle interactions with him. A born storyteller with a gift for banter honed by years in the British army, Skaife has written a book that is far from a dry monograph about the species or a sentimental love letter to his birds. His beguiling, fascinating, and highly amusing account is full of details of the ravens’ everyday care, and details of his own life too, along with musings on how it is possible to feel happy and at home living and working in the fishbowl of a busy tourist attraction in the middle of London.
There’s joy in The Ravenmaster, as well as tragedy, obsession, and a rare tenderness toward Skaife’s avian charges. On his watch the ravens have been given dedicated aviaries and fed a diet that no longer consists merely of scraps from Smithfield Market but includes rats, day-old chicks, offal, boiled eggs, unshelled peanuts, fish, and rabbits. Dog biscuits soaked in blood are a favorite. Their wings are also less severely clipped than they were in the past, giving them a greater ability to fly. Now they can flap up to the roofs of the Tower buildings, and Merlina, the raven most bonded to Skaife, flies so well that she regularly spends time outside the Tower walls. “They need freedom, but they also need protection,” Skaife says of his ravens, as a soldier would speak of the British people. His new regime has been a great success, though changes to the wing-clipping routine have resulted in several chases to retrieve ravens gone awol. One bird was returned to him—alive—inside a gym bag.
Skaife didn’t train as a scientist, but living with the Tower ravens has given him deep insight into their minds and characters. Studying ravens in the wild is hard, though not impossible. They’re wide-ranging creatures, and usually highly suspicious of humans, who have spent centuries persecuting them as vermin believed to threaten livestock. Much of what we know about them has come from studying captive ones, like Konrad Lorenz’s raven, who famously would call his own name—“Roah!”—to Lorenz, while using proper raven calls to talk to his conspecifics. Keeping a raven is not like keeping chickens or doves; as the raven expert Bernd Heinrich has explained, their keepers more commonly see them as children, partners, or best friends. What’s more, the birds tend to be proficient trainers of their human handlers, rather than the other way around. They are not always easy to live with. I once met a man who laughingly described life with his raven as being a little like sharing a house with a psychotic toddler wielding a chisel.