One of the Tower of London’s resident ravens has been missing for several weeks, and the raven keepers believe the bird may have died.
It follows reports earlier this year that the ravens had been increasingly straying from the tower because they were “bored” as visitor numbers had plummeted during lockdown.
The Tower said the female bird, Merlina, was the “Queen of the Tower ravens”, and since joining the resident ravens in 2007 had been the “undisputed ruler of the roost”.
In the wild ravens typically live for up to about 15 years, but those kept by humans often live to be over 20, with some at the Tower of London previously known to reach 40 years old.
“We have some really unhappy news to share,” a Twitter post by the Tower of London said.
“Our much-loved raven Merlina has not been seen at the Tower for several weeks, and her continued absence indicates to us that she may have sadly passed away.
“Though it isn’t unusual for our ravens to roam outside the walls, free-spirited Merlina has previously always returned to the Tower and to the Ravenmaster and his team, with whom she shared a wonderfully close bond.”
The resident ravens which are kept at the Tower are shrouded in myth, which holds that if the ravens are lost or fly away, the Crown will fall and Britain with it.
A minimum of six ravens are supposed to be kept at the tower, and even with Merlina’s departure, there are still seven.
William the Conqueror built the imposing stone tower at the centre of his London fortress in the 1070s, but it wasn’t until the reign of Charles II, 600 years later, that – the legend goes, a witch told him should the ravens ever leave the Tower, the monarchy would fall.
During the medieval period ravens were common scavengers in London, but historians believe the emergence of the myths may have been the work of the Victorian imagination, with fascination in ravens surging following the publication of Edgar Allan Poe’s narrative poem The Raven in 1845.
During the Blitz of the Second World War, the ravens were apparently used as unofficial spotters for enemy planes and bombs, resulting in just one raven – named Gripp – surviving. As a result, Winston Churchill ordered a minimum of six be kept at the tower at all times.
Until Merlina’s departure, the ravens — collectively known as an “unkindness” or a “treachery” — numbered eight.
“We now have seven ravens here at the Tower — one more than the required six, so we don’t have any immediate plans to fill Merlina’s vacancy,” the Tower said.
“However in time we hope that a new chick from our breeding programme will be up to the formidable challenge of continuing her legacy.
“Since joining us in 2007, Merlina was our undisputed ruler of the roost, Queen of the Tower Ravens. She will be greatly missed by her fellow ravens, the Ravenmaster, and all of us in the Tower community.”
Chris Skaife, the Ravenmaster, told the BBC’s Today programme Merlina had not been seen since before Christmas.
He said: “Just before Christmas, before we went into the lockdown, we were putting the ravens to bed, and she didn’t come back. Merlina is a free-spirited raven and has been known to leave the Tower precincts on many occasions. But I’m her buddy and normally she comes back to us, but this time she didn’t, so I do fear that she is not with us anymore.”
Asked if there were still more than six, Mr Skaife said: “Obviously as the Ravenmaster, my concern is looking after the kingdom – should the Ravens leave the Tower of London it will crumble to dust and great harm will befall the kingdom – of course that is myth and legend – but we do have seven ravens here at the Tower of London, six by royal decree and we still have a spare one, so we’re ok at the moment.”
Mr Skaife said the Ravens are well looked after at the Tower, and he even goes to Smithfield Market, the other side of St Paul’s Cathedral from the Tower, where he buys meat for them.
He said: “Though nowadays they mostly have more specialist food, such as rats and mice and chicks, and biscuits soaked in blood, on occasion.”
Ravens are highly intelligent birds, with one of the largest brains of any bird species. They have been observed solving complex problems, and it has been argued that they are just one of four species known to be able to display “displacement” – the ability to communicate to others about objects or events which are distant in space and time from the moment of communication – for example about the location of food.
They are also among the most playful of bird species, known to use twigs as toys, undertaking spectacular aerobatics with one another, and have been observed repeatedly sliding down banks of snow – apparently for fun.
Though they are well known, numbers of ravens in the UK remain relatively low, with fewer than 10,000 breeding pairs.