As the Bird Flies

On March 6, 2012 · 2 Comments

There are people who read the Twelve Mile Circle from places located literally around the globe. It’s hard to believe in an era of instantaneous worldwide communication that pigeons were once considered a viable method to pass information in certain specialized instances. Often these were for military or other governmental purposes although I’m not quite as interested in those applications. Rather, I wondered about civilian applications and postal delivery services. Where did the geography favor bird power over more established means?

I discovered two places that once had formally-established routes intended for civilian communication a century ago. There may be more.

Catalina Island, California, USA



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Santa Catalina Island (commonly shortened to Catalina) isn’t located much more than about twenty miles from the California mainland. That convenient fact attracted wealthy Angelenos who flocked there beginning in the late 19th Century for quick vacation getaways. It was far enough away from the city to relax in peace but close enough to get back-and-forth to conveniently. Vacationers could leave Los Angeles, take a ship across the channel and arrive in Catalina within a few hours.

Powerful businessmen on holiday sometimes faced a dilemma. A telegraph line didn’t stretch across the channel at the turn of the last century. How could they remain in touch with the office? A hand-delivered message took several hours at a minimum and it was expensive. The postal mail took several days. They would certainly favor an alternate means to close the communication gap to something more reasonable.

Two brothers became budding entrepreneurs by identified this need and offering a solution. Otto and Oswald Zahn trained pigeons to fly between Avalon on Catalina Island and Bunker Hill (map) in downtown Los Angeles. Their service ran from 1894 to 1898, charging $.50 to $1.00 per message written on lighweight paper carried in a small tube attached to a pigeon. A contemporary account described the service (includes photos):

A message written on a bit of tissue-paper by one of the fanciers to his brother, who was waiting at home to receive it, was duly attached to the leg of Orlando, a high-class homer… The air-line distance from Avalon to Los Angeles is about fifty miles. The time required by the human animal to make the trip via boat and train is from four to five hours. Orlando accomplished the distance in precisely fifty-four minutes… For several years now the birds have been flown between Avalon and Los Angeles during the Summer months, and their reliability and promptitude have been a revelation even to those persons having some knowledge of the homer’s accomplishments.

Further information can be found in a 1986 article in the Los Angeles Times. Ultimately the venture wasn’t very profitable, and a wireless station established a few years later completely removed any further incentive.


Great Barrier Island, New Zealand



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A journey across water is a common theme here. This time the route involved communication between Great Barrier Island and Auckland, crossing New Zealand’s Hauraki Gulf. A pigeon will fly reliably back to its home — thus the name homing pigeons — after undergoing a training regimen that gradually increase the distance flown along an intended route. However it has only one home. One would need twice as many birds for back-and-forth communication so the New Zealand route went in a single direction: from Great Barrier Island to Auckland. Birds had to be delivered back to Great Barrier Island by ship to deliver the next set of messages.

An excellent overview is provided by the Museum of New Zealand, complete with a descriptive video (which I wish I could embed here but can’t find a way to do that) plus images from their collection.

Before the pigeon post service was established the only regular connection between the community on Great Barrier Island (90 kilometres northeast of Auckland) and the mainland was provided by a weekly coastal steamer. The island’s isolation was highlighted when the ship SS Wairarapa was wrecked off its coast in 1894, with the loss of 121 lives, and the news took several days to reach the mainland. The pigeon post service began between the island and Auckland in 1897. Soon there were two rival pigeongram companies, both of which issued distinctive and attractive stamps. The stamps have been eagerly collected for their novelty value, and some have become extremely rare.

Once again, technology soon overtook pigeon power and the service disappeared.


Modern Applications

I discovered several examples of pigeons used as a means of civilian communication in the modern world.



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  • A white water rafting company in Colorado uses pigeons to fly digital camera memory cards from deep canyons to the home office.
  • Some offices in South Africa believe pigeon flights are quicker for transporting encrypted data than the their broadband connections.
  • I found a single reference in Yahoo! Answers that claims pigeon posts still exist in Rajasthan, India, citing service to a desert village, Napasar. Anyone can post anything on those pages so I’ll take this claim with a grain of salt until proven otherwise. I’d love for it to be true.

Please let me know if anyone is aware of other civilian pigeon posts now or in the past, especially if it confirms the service in Rajasthan.

On March 6, 2012 · 2 Comments

2 Responses to “As the Bird Flies”

  1. David Overton says:

    There was an April Fool’s Day proposal by the Internet Engineering Task Force in 1990 for a protocol to transport internet packets via “avian carriers” (i.e. homing pigeons).

    According to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IP_over_Avian_Carriers, the IP over Avian Carriers protocol was actually implemented by the Bergen Linux user group in 2001, although only 9 packets were sent and there was a 55% packet loss.

    The original RFC proposal is at http://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc1149.

    • Thanks for pointing that out, David. — I hadn’t see that while conducting my research for the article. My favorite bit of trivia from that source: "During the last 20 years, the information density of storage media and thus the bandwidth of an Avian Carrier has increased 3 times faster than the bandwidth of the Internet. IPoAC [ed. 'Internet Protocol over Avian Carrier'] may achieve bandwidth peaks of orders of magnitude more than the Internet when used with multiple Avian Carriers in rural areas."

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