A Life among the Birds
By Marcia Allen, Collections Manager
Yeoman Warder Christopher Skaife: an unusual title for a very unusual career. Skaife, as it turns out, had a lengthy career in the British military that took him to various locations throughout the world. When he retired, he wasn’t aware of many options for an ex-military officer, but years of commitment to military service was the first requirement for his next great adventure. He applied for and was accepted for the position of Yeoman Warder of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress, which made him partly responsible for the security of the Tower of London.
Skaife’s actual career as ravenmaster began in 2005 when the current ravenmaster, Derrick Coyle, informed him that the ravens liked him. To test Skaife’s mettle, Coyle led him to a cage and urged him inside, warning him to keep his distance and avoid looking the two largest ravens in the eye. When one of the birds hopped to a perch next to Skaife and looked him over, Coyle told Skaife that he would do. From that moment, Skaife became one of the trusted assistants.
Skaife’s wonderful new autobiography, The Ravenmaster, alludes to his childhood experiences and to his military career, but it’s more of a tribute to the ravens he loves. He speaks of the individual personalities and the unusual quirks he has noted over the years. He addresses the tragedies that have taken place, like one raven’s attempt to fly from a high perch with clipped feathers. He reveals mistakes that he made, like changing the typical routine, an event that made one night’s rushed securing of the cages a disaster.
Skaife also shares much of raven lore he has discovered. The tower always houses six or seven specially banded ravens, which belong to the corvid family that also includes crows and magpies. Ravens, however, are three time larger than crows and have a wingspan between three to four feet. They tend to have a shaggy look about them, and they make a croaking sound rather than a cawing sound. According to old legend, the tower will crumble and the fate of London will take a hard turn should the ravens ever leave. The thousands of tourists who walk through the tower grounds every year always seek out the birds and want to hear about their care and behavior.
Ravens, according to Skaife, live by a strict set of rules. They will not be hurried and their pecking order is not to be tampered with. Their favorite treat is a dog biscuit soaked in animal blood. They are preyed upon by foxes, so the staff members of the tower are always on the lookout for the foxes. The ravens are also talented thieves, capable of stalking tourists carrying desirable sandwiches that they can swiftly grab. They are also very effective communicators, and Skaife is the first to admit that he imitates their sounds in order to talk to them.
Clearly, the author has a love for the ravens, and he cannot accept the fact that others sometimes link the birds to death and to ruin. Skaife is a big fan of Charles Dickens, the famous writer who kept a beloved raven, Grip, among his own menagerie. And Skaife fondly remembers the time George R. R. Martin came to visit the tower, spending as much time as possible observing the tower ravens.
The Ravenmaster is a delight to read. The author seems a humble man who has happily found his life’s calling. His appreciation for the ravens is clear throughout, and the knowledge he shares is amazing. You won’t want to miss this captivating tale.