One of the resident birds at the Tower of London is feared to have died. Legend says at least six must be kept there, or the nation will fall.

Christopher Skaife, the ravenmaster at the Tower of London, tending to his charges in October. He noticed in December that one bird was missing.Credit…Tolga Akmen/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

By Alan Cowel Jan. 14,2021

LONDON — They flap and lollop and squawk and scavenge. They hold the future of the realm, some say, in their fearsome beaks. And now one of them — their queen, Merlina — has been reclassified to M.I.A. from AWOL, heralding the feared redemption of a purported prophecy dating from the time of King Charles II in the 17th century: When the ravens leave the Tower of London, the building will crumble and the kingdom with it.

That at least is the story so far, a blend of myth, invention and hard-billed commercialism that has elevated the resident colony of ravens at London’s famed prison and palace on the north bank of the River Thames to a rare status: clipped-wing guardians of the national destiny, tourist-dollar magnets.

Most people, including the tower’s scarlet-clad wardens known as Beefeaters, dismiss the prophecy wryly as a fiction invented in Victorian Britain in the 19th century.