According to popular lore, the fates of both the Tower of London and the wider British kingdom are intrinsically linked with the presence of at least six ravens in the palatial, 1,000-year-old fortress. As a royal decree reportedly issued by 17th-century King Charles II warned, if the birds ever flee their London home, “the Tower itself will crumble to dust and a great harm will befall the kingdom.”
Luckily, there appears to be little chance of this dystopian vision becoming reality anytime soon: The Tower maintains a population of at least seven ravens (the corvid equivalent of “heir plus a spare”), and last week, officials announced the birth of four healthy chicks—the first hatched at the London stronghold since 1989, when the Tower welcomed a baby named Ronald Raven.
The Telegraph’s Jack Hardy notes that Tower staffers installed a new aviary last year in response to concerns over the declining number of legal raven breeders in the United Kingdom. Typically, Tower ravens are bred elsewhere and then brought to London. Of the seven corvids currently housed in the Tower, five were born in Somerset, one was born in Surrey, and one was born in South Wales.
“We decided that it would be a really good idea to see if we could actually breed ravens ourselves at the Tower of London to secure our future,” Tower Ravenmaster Chris Skaife explains in a video posted on Twitter.
Say hello to our new baby ravens at the Tower of London These four little chicks are the first to be born here in 30 years. Legend tells us that should the ravens ever leave, the Tower will fall. Now, our future is secured and Chris Skaife @ravenmaster1 is one happy Dad! pic.twitter.com/BirBqM1Oiw— The Tower of London (@TowerOfLondon) May 17, 2019
Huginn and Muninn, the newborn chicks’ parents, arrived at the Tower aviary toward the end of 2018 but were not expected to be settled in time for the 2019 mating season. Skaife, however, started to suspect the pair had successfully bred after spotting a huge nest that appeared suddenly overnight. On April 23, St. George’s Day, he saw the birds bringing food to the nest, and a few weeks later, he was finally able to approach and assess the scene for himself.
According to a statement, the chicks eat at least once every two hours, feasting on a diet of quail, mice and rats procured by Skaife, prepared by their father Huginn, and passed along by their mother Muninn. All four are growing quickly, quadrupling in size from around 8 centimeters tall at birth to more than 30 centimeters last week. Although the baby ravens are beginning to develop their species’ characteristic black plumage, it will take another year or so for their beaks to become fully black. Come late summer, one of the four chicks, named George or Georgina in a nod to the day on which they hatched, will permanently join the seven ravens (not counting Huginn, Muninn and the newborns) currently in residence at the Tower. The remaining three, according to Metro's Kate Buck, will be placed under the care of a specialist breeder in Somerset.
As William Booth wrote for the Washington Post in October 2018, Skaife’s day begins with the ravens’ release from their dormitories, or airy enclosures where they are kept at night to avoid deadly encounters with foxes. The seven corvids—three females named Erin, Poppy and Merlina, as well as four males named Jubilee, Harris, Gripp and Rocky—are released in order of least to most dominant; they spend the remainder of their time hopping across Tower grounds, scavenging through trash, playing with magpies, and flying, albeit “not very well and not too far.”
In the past, ravenmasters trimmed their charges’ feathers to prevent escape and, if legend is to be believed, cataclysmic, kingdom-wide doom. But as Skaife tells Booth, he stopped this practice after a raven named Thor fell from scaffolding on the fortress’ White Tower and died in 2010.
Despite Skaife and previous caretakers’ best efforts, some ravens have actually managed to fly the coop. One, named Munin (different from the breeding raven Muninn), escaped down the Thames River but was spotted by a local birdwatcher, who captured her in a gym bag and returned her to the Tower. Historic U.K. further highlights Grog, an escapee last seen outside of an East End pub in 1981, while Atlas Obscura’s Sarah Laskow details the story of George, a raven who left the Tower under decidedly different circumstances. As the official dismissal order, issued after George destroyed five TV antennas in one week, stated, “On Saturday 13th September 1986, Raven George, enlisted 1975, was posted to the Welsh Mountain Zoo. Conduct unsatisfactory, service therefore no longer required.”
Overall, Tower ravens tend to live longer than those in the wild. According to Historic Royal Palaces, the charity tasked with overseeing the Tower and other national landmarks, one corvid lived from 1884 to 1928—an astounding 44 years. Today, the ravens enjoy a diet of fresh raw meat, a once-weekly egg treat and the occasional rabbit.
In a press release, the ravenmaster—author of a 2018 autobiography detailing his singular occupation—concludes, “Having worked with the ravens here at the Tower for the last thirteen years and getting to know each of them, I feel like a proud father.”