Tuesday, 29 September 2020 11:25

Ravens and the Tower of London

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According to history, there were so many ravens living at the Tower of London during the reign of King Charles II that he decided to get rid of them, despite believing the superstition that ravens were a symbol of good fortune.

His astronomer, John Flamsteed, also complained that the ravens got in the way of his studies of the night sky from his observatory in the White Tower. But the king was subsequently warned, possibly by a witch, that the Kingdom and the Tower itself would fall if the ravens left (According to folklore, the spirit of King Arthur lives on in the ravens, so harming one would bring bad luck). So to be on the safe side, Charles opted to move the Observatory to Greenwich and keep the ravens at Tower, and the legend warning of the destruction of the empire endures to this day.

During World War 2, most of the ravens were killed in bombing raids or died of shock as a result. The legend of their importance to the realm was so powerful, and the opportunity for a much-needed morale boost so great, that when the tower reopened to the public on January 1st 1946, at the heart of the ruined City of London, somehow ravens had been obtained and were back in place.

There are currently seven ravens at the Tower — the required six, plus one spare. Their names are Jubilee, Harris, Gripp, Rocky, Erin, Poppy and Merlina. This count doesn't include a breeding pair (Huginn and Muninn) who last year produced four new chicks, appropriately hatching on St George's day. It was the first time in 30 years that raven chicks had been born at the Tower. One of the chicks was chosen to remain, and has been named George as a result.

The Ravenmaster Yeoman Warder (currently Chris Skaife), occasionally trims some of the ravens' primary and secondary flight feathers to encourage them to stay at the Tower. All the Tower ravens are able to fly but, with careful feather management, plenty of food and a comfortable new enclosure, they are happy to call the Tower their home. The ravens are fed twice a day on a special diet of mice, chicks, rats and assorted raw meats. As a special treat, they are given biscuits soaked in blood.

However, some ravens have gone AWOL in the past and others have even been sacked. Raven Muninn flew off to Greenwich and was eventually returned a week later by a vigilant member of the public. Raven George (a different one) fell out of favour for eating television aerials and was banished to live in Wales, and Raven Grog was last seen outside an East End pub.

Ravens at the Tower of London

Ravens are intelligent birds and each of those residing at the Tower has its own character. They can mimic sounds, play games and solve problems. Corvids, the group of birds that includes ravens, jays and crows, have unusually large brains compared with many other birds. Birds need to be light for flight, but a raven’s brain accounts for almost 2% of its body mass, a value similar to humans. Corvids often live in intimate social groups of related and unrelated individuals. They spend a lot of time under their parents’ wings, and researchers believe that this ongoing tutelage by patient parents may explain how corvids have developed such intelligence. They are capable of using tools, recognising human faces, and even understanding physics, and some researchers believe corvids may even rival apes for intelligence.

Ravens can also live to a very ripe age. The oldest raven to live at the Tower was called Jim Crow, and died in 1928 at the age of 44.

But now there's a new threat to the ravens, and if you believe the legend, a threat to the Tower and the realm......
The long months of lockdown have changed the behaviour of the existing ravens, with some becoming more wary of people, not having seen many other than the Yeoman Warders for an unusually long time. Ravenmaster Chris Skaife even goes so far as to say the birds are 'bored and lonely'....."The Tower is only the Tower when the people are here", says Skaife, who had to give the birds teddies, footballs and squeaky dog toys to keep them entertained during the lockdown.

Two of the ravens - Merlina and Jubilee — have already begun venturing beyond the castle precincts to forage for food. The two birds, now earning the nicknames 'Bonnie and Clyde' have wandered as far as the visitors’ exit and have also been tapping on the windows of the wardens’ homes to beg for food, so accustomed are they to polishing off scraps from tourists' lunches.

Mr Skaife said: “Never in a raven’s history have we seen fewer people in the Tower of London'. Not least for this reason have the guardians of London's most famous landmark been appealing to visitors to return to the Tower.

Read 1858 times Last modified on Friday, 02 October 2020 13:15

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