Friday, September 19, 2014

London Birds

One of travel's pleasures is coming upon the unexpected, and in London I was surprised by the birds. In Paris, there were pigeons everywhere but the bird market, so I expected the same in London.

The first day, near our flat in Battersea Park, there were bright green parrots squabbling in the trees. We saw them again the next day, at Buckingham Palace St. James Park, along with mute swans, moorhens and coots. Most surprisingly, a pelican! Beautifully coloured common magpies were hopping around almost everywhere.

Then at the Tower of London, the Ravens. Their wings are clipped due to the superstition that the Tower will fall  if there are not six ravens on hand to guard it at all times. Now there are eight, just in case. Huge, black, barking and ominous.

The birds may be captives, but they are well tended and fed meat with bloody cookies regularly. There is even a Yeoman Warder Beefeater tasked with the responsibility to look after them.

To even qualify for the position of Beefeater, you must have served 22 years in the military as a senior or petty officers and hold the Longservice and Good Conduct award. There have only been 400 Beefeaters to date, so it is quite a distinction to join the corps.

We chatted at length to the Yeoman in charge of these creatures. He actually had an arm patch of a Raven on the sleeve of his uniform.  Shortly after joining the elite security team. their current keeper noticed the birds had taken a liking to the newcomer, so 'took him under his wing' and trained him. Initiation included spending time in the cage, birds pecking. Duties of the Raven Guard  include feeding, clipping, monitoring the Ravens overall health, investigating their deaths, introducing new birds, protecting the existing flock, and occasionally recapturing and returning birds to Tower grounds. Just the week before, a pair had hopped over the wall and the Beefeater searched for five days to bring them back (wearing plainclothes). He knows each of the birds by their size, shape, call, and personality, and spoke about their moods with affection.

A few years ago, a fox managed to get on the grounds and kill two birds, causing security to be 'beefed up'. The average raven life span is about twenty years, while the current age of the oldest Tower Raven is forty-seven. They seem to have great disdain for the tourists.

Part of me can't help but wonder if the Tower Ravens were jailors or guards in their past lives.

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