Relative to their body size, ravens have the biggest brains of just about any birds in the world. For evidence of their intelligence, you need look no further than the storeroom which is my inner sanctum as Ravenmaster at the Tower of London.
Alongside the fishing net which is handy for raven-catching in case of emergency, there is the freezer that contains assorted meats such as mice, rats and day-old chicks.
We have an old version of the classic children’s game Kerplunk. In the raven edition, the challenge for the birds is to remove the straws in order to win a dead mouse, which I place in the tube, ready to fall down and be eaten.
The reigning champion is Munin, who, at 23, is the oldest and longest-serving of the seven ravens at the Tower.
She came here in 1995 when she was only six weeks old and has had three partners. As two of them are now dead, she is affectionately known as the Black Widow and currently has a younger partner, five-year-old Jubilee. All I can do is wish him well.
I have something of a troubled relationship with Munin. Sometimes I think she hates me.
She has been giving me the run-around for years and, since research suggests that ravens can recognise human faces, I can only assume that I did something horrendous in my early days at the Tower for which she has never forgiven me.
I started working here as a Yeoman Warder, as we Beefeaters are properly known, in 2005.
All of us, servicemen and women, have long records of unblemished service — in my case, almost 25 years as an infantryman.
That took me all over the world and eventually to the Tower of London, with its bloody history of murder, torture and, of course, ravens.
Without them, the legend goes, great harm will befall the kingdom and the Tower itself will crumble into dust.
This fate would be particularly unfortunate for us Yeoman Warders because our homes are in the outer battlements.
For me, my wife and our daughter, it’s like living anywhere else — except that we have arrow slits for windows, our walls are 50ft high and we are locked in at night.
When I first arrived at the Tower, I knew almost nothing about birds and my only contact with the ravens was when our large grey Persian cat, Tigger, sat on top of their cages, dangling a paw through the bars and teasing them.
This earned me a telling-off by the then Ravenmaster, Derrick Coyle, a former Regimental Sergeant Major.
‘Get that damned cat off the cages or the birds will have it for dinner!’ he’d yell.
Surely, I thought, it should be the other way around? But years later, I’ve realised just how right Derrick was. More than once I’ve seen a raven chasing a resident’s cat or dog around Tower Green.
Beneath his harsh military exterior, Derrick was the kindest of men and one evening he told me that he thought the ravens might like me.
I followed him to their quarters — where he told me to get inside a cage with two of the biggest birds I had ever seen, two-and-a-half times the size of your average crow.
‘Don’t look them directly in the eye,’ Derrick said. ‘And don’t get too close. They find it threatening.’
They find it threatening? I knew from the other Yeoman Warders that the ravens are powerful and unpredictable creatures with a savage peck, and I had no intention of getting too near. But suddenly one of the birds came and perched right next to me.
I could feel its breath on my face and wondered if I should move slowly away, but to my surprise the raven simply cocked its head from side to side, then dipped its head as if in a bow, thrust out its wings and made a cronking sound.
‘You’ll do,’ said Derrick, hauling me out of the cage. ‘Meet me tomorrow at 05.30 hours.’
And that was that. I’d passed the interview and was taken under Derrick’s wing as an assistant Ravenmaster.
In the coming years I noticed how he and his successor, Ravenmaster ‘Rocky’ Stones, talked about the birds all the time, as if nothing else mattered. For a long time I thought this was weird but now I’m Ravenmaster, I understand. The ravens are my life.
Mentions of the ravens at the Tower go back a long way. One account describes how ravens were seen gazing on the scene when Queen Anne Boleyn was executed in 1536.
Back then, ravens were ubiquitous but by the 19th century they had become regarded as pests and were hunted almost to extinction.
Today, ravens are making a comeback throughout Britain but mainly in the Scottish Highlands, the Welsh hills and the uplands of northern England. Th