By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 22, 2006
LONDON, Feb. 21 -- For 350 years, coal-black ravens have wandered freely around the Tower of London's grassy inner courtyard as cawing barometers of the monarchy's vitality -- if the ravens ever die or leave the tower, the legend goes, the tower and the kingdom will fall.
Now the fear of bird flu has done what Luftwaffe bombings, blizzards, assassinations and abdications could not, forcing the ravens to be moved inside in isolation for their own safety and to hedge Britain's bets on the future of the crown.
"I talk to them and they're calm," said Raven Master Derrick Coyle, in his navy Tudor bonnet and beefeater outfit as he stood inside the 11th-century fortress on the Thames, one of the world's leading tourist attractions. Four times a day, Coyle said, he dons a full-body protective suit, steps carefully into a disinfectant foot wash and then offers raw meat, vitamins and comforting words to the six ravens -- Branwen, Hugine, Munin, Gwyllum, Thor and Baldrick -- who now live in eight-foot-long cages in one of the towers.
Coyle, 61, a former soldier who has cared for the tower's ravens for 22 years, said the suit is not for his protection, but for the ravens'. Given the speed at which the avian flu seems to be spreading across the globe, Coyle said one cannot be too careful.
On Tuesday, Hungarian officials confirmed that they had found the lethal H5N1 strain in three dead swans. With seven European countries now reporting cases of bird flu, including France, which is just 21 miles across the English Channel, concern is spreading in Britain. European officials met Tuesday in Brussels to discuss how to contain the virus, which has killed at least 92 people, mostly in Asia.
The British government has announced that plans are being prepared to put millions of free-range chickens indoors if the disease reaches British shores. But, quietly, the country's most famous birds were moved indoors last Wednesday night to custom-made aviaries. The move was made public this week by Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress, as the tower is officially known, as visitors continue to inquire as to the whereabouts of one of the favorite features of the 900-year-old tower.
As thousands of visitors arrived Tuesday to view the famed Crown Jewels, several discussed the ravens that were seen no more. No one was saying nevermore would they be seen, but officials said the quarantine is not likely to be brief. They also said they were preparing film footage of the ravens for visitors.
"Thank goodness they are still on these grounds," said Margaret Hopkins, a retired schoolteacher visiting the tower. She said she wasn't really superstitious but thought it best not to cross a 17th-century decree by King Charles II to always keep six ravens at the tower, lest great harm descend.
"Legend and tradition is what this country is famous for," agreed John Harrison, an air-conditioning salesman from Manchester who brought his wife and son to the tower. "So many traditions are disappearing, I am glad this one isn't."
Coyle said the ravens are settling into their new surroundings and maintaining their normal diet, which includes hard-boiled eggs, grapes and biscuits soaked in blood. "The first day they were a little bit stressed," he said. "They're eating very well, and Thor, the one who talks, said, 'Good morning,' straight away."
The worry, Coyle explained, is that a wild bird infected with bird flu might land in the tower's wide-open inner courtyard and infect the ravens. There is little possibility of the ravens flying beyond the tower grounds, as their wings have been clipped to prevent just such a getaway. There has been "the occasional raven escape," according to a fact sheet from the tower, which explained that one raven named Grog "was last seen outside an East End pub called the Rose and Punchbowl in 1981."
The birds typically live into their mid-twenties, though one, Jim Crow, lived until he was 44. Coyle said the birds have a more complex little culture than the tower's 2.5 million annual visitors might imagine. He explained that talkative Thor and Munin are a mated pair -- he described them as "married." He said they are now being kept together in a separate enclosure inside the Upper Brick Tower.
Paddy Harverson, spokesman for Prince Charles -- who, as first in line to the throne, has a significant stake in the ravens' well-being -- offered a droll comment that betrayed no immediate royal panic.
"We are happy the birds are safe," he said.