Conversations Between Birders

181029_r33103illuweb

Christopher Skaife Illustration by João Fazenda

Thanks to Sarah Larson for this:

Bird-Watching with the Ravenmaster

The yeoman warder charged with caring for the ravens of the Tower of London hikes along the Hudson.

When he’s at work, at the Tower of London, Yeoman Warder Christopher Skaife typically wears a uniform featuring a royal-blue tabard with scarlet ornamentation, a brass-buckled belt, and a bonnet. (Formalwear involves stockings and a ruff.) Skaife lives at the Tower, too, with his wife, in a house with forty-foot walls and arrow slits for windows. Skaife is the Tower’s Ravenmaster—his new book, “The Ravenmaster,” just came out—and in that role he cares for its most famous current residents, Merlin (a.k.a. Merlina), Erin, Rocky, Jubilee II, Gripp II, Harris, and Poppy, and gives tours to some of the Tower’s three million annual visitors. Recently, while vacationing in Manhattan, Skaife, who is Beefeater-shaped, with a bristly beard, was incognito, dressed in a zippered jacket and cargo shorts. He has tattoos on his calves depicting ravens, as well as, he said, “the skulls of those who were executed on the Tower Green.” On a crisp Friday, Skaife met up with his friend Gabriel Willow, a trim man in a cap, who works with New York City Audubon, to embark on a raven quest.

After a long absence, ravens have returned to the metro area: about six pairs nest in or around New York City. Willow and Skaife visited three potential hot spots—Pelham Bay Park, in the Bronx (mallards, cormorants, egrets; no ravens), far West Twenty-third Street, and Inwood Hill Park, at the northernmost tip of Manhattan. At West Twenty-third and the Hudson River, Skaife and Willow peered through binoculars. “I did see a raven this morning up in Central Park—a big flyby,” Willow said. “I heard cawing and calling, and a murder of crows swirled around, chasing a raven.”“Crows can be quite vicious, and quite territorial,” Skaife said. He has a Cockney accent—“fevvers” for “feathers,” and the like. “One of our ravens mimics crows,” he said: Merlina, one of “The Ravenmaster” ’s most entertaining characters. “When I let her out in the morning, sometimes she’ll make the crow sound, to attract crows to play with her. She shares food as well.” Willow asked what Tower ravens eat. “Mice, rats, day-old chicks, dog biscuits soaked in blood, and anything they can steal from the public,” Skaife replied. Some ravens mimic humans. “We had one raven once who said ‘Good morning’ to Vladimir Putin,” Skaife went on. “He was quite taken aback.”

They scanned the Hudson—blue jays, gulls, and monarch butterflies, but no ravens. They headed east, to catch a cab. At the corner of Eleventh Avenue, Willow looked up. “Turkey vultures!” he said.

A construction worker in a hard hat was waiting to cross the street. He looked up, too. “Get out of here!” he shouted. “They fly around when someone’s dead, right?”

“They may or may not see anything dead—they might just be moving through,” Willow said.

“Sometimes bird-watching just happens,” the construction worker said.

Skaife sat in the front seat of the taxi to Inwood. “You’re wearing shorts?” the driver asked. His name was Mohammed Ali.

“I come from England, and in England this is warm,” Skaife told him. They chatted, and Skaife mentioned living at the Tower of London.

“That’s where you have seven ravens, right?”

“Yes, and I’m—”

“One of them is gone, do you know that?”

“No, it’s not, because I’m their keeper!” Skaife said, laughing.

“That’s the fall of England, isn’t it?” Ali said.

“If the ravens leave the Tower of London, it will crumble into dust and great harm will befall our kingdom,” Skaife said. (According to Skaife, this legend was invented around 1880, by the Tower itself. “Marketing,” he explained.) “So I’ve come over here to steal some of yours.”

“Take as many as you want,” Ali said. “Ravens—those bastards never forget! In Bangladesh, every time one of them saw me it would dive on my head.” He asked about the Crown Jewels, also resident at the Tower. “Don’t you have our diamond?” he said. (The Koh-i-Noor, one of the largest cut diamonds in the world, was “ceded” to Queen Victoria in 1849.)

“We kind of have it,” Skaife said…

Read the entire conversation here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s