Derrick Coyle - Ravenmaster at The Tower

Interview by Sally Kindberg for Cityguide Magazine

RavenmasterDerrick Coyle lives by raven time.
When I met him at 10 a.m., beside a couple of tombs overlooking Tower Green’s probable execution site, he’d already been up for 5 hours. Ravens are early risers in the summer, and Derrick has been Ravenmaster at the Tower of London for 10 years. He’s responsible for the health and happiness of a small band of avian intelligentsia, whose presence at the Tower, legend has it, averts disaster in the kingdom. It’s said that Charles II was particularly concerned about this legend, and passed a decree that guaranteed the ravens’ welfare.

Every morning Derrick lets the ravens out of their caged dormitory, where they sleep for their own safety out of the reach of foxes or feral cats, and checks their plumage is glossy, their eyes beady-bright, and their mood is good.

“I’m a country boy,” says Derrick, “I grew up on a farm in County Durham, loved animals and birds. I had jackdaws and crows as my pets, and later, when I was in the army and travelled all over the world, I was an avid twitcher.” Derrick served over 20 years with the Green Howards, proudly wears his Ravenmaster badge on his arm and a couple of medals, including the Royal Victoria Medal, on his chest. In the 1980s he became one of the 35 Yeoman Warders (now 34 men and one woman) or Beefeaters, who all have to have served a minimum of 22 years in the armed services. He helped to look after the ravens for 15 years before he became Ravenmaster, is a falconer and now a raven expert.

Derrick has great respect for the birds, and believes they are the most intelligent of their species. There are always 6 at the Tower, with one or two spare, and each has his or her territory which they determine for themselves. They wear coloured ID tags round their ankles, and take their territorial duties seriously.

Derrick also believes the Tower ravens have very different characters, and speaks about them with great affection. As we sit talking, he suddenly breaks off to warn a little girl. “Keep away from the bird!” he shouts. There are plenty of notices warning the public not to approach the birds, but the public don’t always understand that ravens have powerful beaks which could easily peck out your eye or take off a finger. There are over 2 million visitors to the Tower every year, but Derrick claims there have only been 7 ‘incidents’ in his time at the Tower … not serious ones, he assures me.

I’m introduced to Thor, the alpha male, (red ID), patrolling Tower Green with Munin, who hails from Scotland. “She’s a real troublemaker,” elaborates Derrick, “always causing trouble between Thor and Baldrick.” Thor, a magnificent bird of gleaming black plumage with a surprisingly bright iridescent sheen, comes towards us with a curious rolling gait, half hop, half lurch. And I’m really honoured, because with a little coaxing from the Ravenmaster, Thor wishes me ‘good morning’, which is fairly rare, though he did say hello to and surprised Russian President Putin when he visited the Tower.

The birds croak, whistle, occasionally mutter threats to each other, or even bark like a dog, and can be quarrelsome. They’re discouraged from leaving the Tower by a little trimming of their flight-feathers, though a couple have gone AWOL, including one who was last seen outside an East End pub called the Rose and Punchbowl. It’s tricky to tell the sexes apart without a DNA test on their feathers, as males and females look very similar. George, who was banished from the Tower to a refuge in Colwyn Bay because he kept breaking the Tower’s TV aerials, then laid an egg and was renamed Georgina.

“Ravens are northern birds.” Derrick tells me. Apparently they love cold weather, and like to run up the slope near the White Tower when there’s a snowfall, turn on their backs and slide down for a bit of fun.

The birds have a gourmet diet of fresh meat which Derrick fetches every month from Smithfield Market. Their menu also includes rabbit, roadkill, boiled eggs, the odd rat and a monthly dose of cod liver oil to keep their feathers glossy. I ask Derrick about his 3 helpers, and how they became involved with the ravens.
“It’s not them knowing the birds as much as the birds knowing them,” he explains.
“They like routine, they don’t like sudden movements.”

Derrick is due to leave the Tower this July and hand over to new Ravenmaster Ray Stones. He’ll to retire to his Suffolk home (he has lived on-site at the Tower) to work in his large garden and spend time with his grandchildren. I ask him what’s the best thing about his job. “The ravens.” He says. And the worst? “Breaking the ice on a cold winter’s morning … I won’t miss that. And no one will follow me round asking me questions.”

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