LONDON — If legend is to be believed, the future of the British monarchy lies in the hands of a sharp-shooting warder at the Tower of London.
For the six ravens who roam one of Britain's landmark fortresses are under threat from up to 200 crows who have invaded their royal domain, spreading disease and stealing food.
So every Sunday at dawn, before the daily tourist invasion begins, Yeoman Warder Derrick Coyle roams The Tower with his .22 air rifle to cull the crows.
For the beefeater, it is a weighty responsibility securing a haven for the ravens. Legend has it that if the ravens leave, The Tower of London will fall and so will the monarchy.
The 17th century monarch Charles II decreed that there must always be six ravens in residence.
"Urban crows are on the increase and they are a growing problem for us," said a spokeswoman for Historic Royal Palaces, which runs the Tower of London.
"The ravenmaster has his own culling strategy. He goes out at dawn and looks for the crows that he knows are ill — they have matted feathers and a mangy appearance," she told Reuters.
Rarely has a collective noun been more appropriate in English — a gathering of crows is known as a murder of crows.
The sharpshooter is particularly on the lookout for crows who might have swallowed rat poison.
The ravens themselves eat like kings — from chicken hearts bought each morning by the ravenmaster at London's Smithfields Market to biscuits soaked in blood.
But life in the lap of avian luxury has apparently not always been so appealing.
One raven, Grog, spent 21 years at the Tower when he suddenly felt the need for a change in 1981 — he was last spotted in the East End of London outside a pub called the Rose and Punchbowl.
Neither is it a job for life. The Governor of the Tower has been known to dismiss ravens for "conduct unbecoming."
In 1986, one miscreant called George was given his marching orders after developing a taste for TV aerials.