Derrick Coyle – The King Raven

61 year old Derrick Coyle’s working day starts at the crack of dawn – literally – when he greets each of his ravens by name, letting them out of the cages where they spend the night.

As he opens each door, the impressive birds half fly, half scurry out, reclaiming their territories on the Tower of London’s greens, hours before the first visitors come through the gates.

The next hour or so is spent checking on the ravens, feeding and watering them and cleaning out their cages. And that’s all before his own breakfast.

As the Tower of London’s Yeoman Warder Ravenmaster, Derrick is responsible for the birds’ welfare, and therefore ensuring the royal decree issued by Charles II – that there are always six ravens at the Tower – is obeyed.

Legend has it that if the birds leave the site, its White Tower will crumble and the Kingdom of England will fall.

Weighty stuff, but Derrick’s day-to-day duties caring for his six adult ravens and two young “spares”, recently found abandoned on Dartmoor, are more down to earth. They include chopping the raw meat he buys from Smithfield Meat Market to feed the birds, filling their water bowls, and generally keeping an eye on them as he performs his other tasks as one of the Tower’s 35 Yeoman Warders, or Beefeaters.

TOWER RAVENS
[list]

  • Gwylum (male), aged 17
  • Thor (m), 14
  • Hugine (f), 10
  • Munin (f), 10
  • Branwen (f), 3
  • Bran (m), 2
  • Gundulf (m), 5 months
  • Baldrick (m), 5 months

[/list]

It can be a long day. The ravens are out in the grounds from dawn until dusk, when they are locked up to protect them from roaming foxes or feral cats.

In the height of summer, this means his day can end as late as 9.30pm, and he rises as early as 4.30am for a shower and shave before starting all over again.

But these are only small hardships to endure for a job he so obviously loves.

“The best thing is looking after the birds, the working relationship I have with them. It’s a lot of fun, and gives me a lot of pleasure,” he says.

“I wouldn’t have it any other way. The ravens are part of the family. They all have their own characters – they’re very intelligent and mischievous.”

So intelligent, in fact, that one of them – the self-appointed leader, Thor – can even speak. He started imitating Derrick, who often receives a “good morning” from him – as, apparently, did a delighted Russian President Vladimir Putin when he visited the Tower.

To be considered as a Yeoman Warder candidates need to have spent at least 22 years in the Armed Forces, with a good conduct record, reaching the rank of warrant officer. Derrick, originally from County Durham, first donned his Beefeater’s uniform at the age of 39, after serving as a regimental sergeant major in the Green Howards. As an animal lover with a lifelong interest in birds, he became a ravenmaster’s assistant just two months later. Finally, after two ravenmasters retired, he got the top job in 1999, and plans to keep doing it until retiring at 65.

His hard work was recently rewarded in the Queen’s Birthday Honours – he was awarded the Royal Victorian Medal.

“It’s a great honour, and something else for the ravens really,” he says. “I try to keep them high profile.”

RAVENS’ DIET

[list]

  • Adults: 6oz raw meat daily
  • Young: 9oz raw meat daily
  • Meat is usually liver, lambs’ hearts and beef or pork trimming
  • A boiled egg, complete with shell for the adult birds, every other day
  • Bird biscuits soaked in blood every other day
  • Occasional part of rabbit, complete with fur for roughage
  • Monthly food bill is about £120[/list]

‘Love pecks’

Monitoring the ravens’ health is an important part of Derrick’s job, and he is in close contact with vets at London Zoo where he takes them when they fall ill.

Once a week, with the help of one of his three assistants, he gives the birds a thorough check over, and every three weeks trims the lifting feathers on their right wings to prevent them from flying away.

To protect his own health, he gets a regular tetanus jab and wears plastic gloves when feeding the ravens in case they transfer a possible infection picked up from rats or other wild animals.

Although the birds are obviously comfortable around humans, Derrick says he never forgets that they’re essentially wild birds, and tries to keep them “stand offish” so they don’t become too tame.

He wears a full face mask and gauntlets when examining them, and admits that at other times he does receive the “odd little peck”.

“But they’re more or less love pecks – they’re being affectionate and don’t know their own strength.”

They also generally do what he says – and come obediently when he whistles for them to go to bed in their cages at the end of the day.

“I’m the king raven here, they look at me as part of them,” he says. “I’m the one who does things for them so I’m the boss.

“The fact it’s an unusual job does give me a little bit of a fillip. There’s no one else who can say ‘I’m the only Ravenmaster Yeoman Warder in the world’.”

Portions of this article were originally reported by Alison Stenlake for BBC News