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Anna Marie Hager
Los Angeles: Dawson's Book Shop, 1985
First edition, limited to 300 copies
printed by Richard J. Hoffman.

PIGEONS were used until the end of 1893 by the United Stated Coast Guard to search for victims lost at sea, in an operation known as the Sea Hunt System. Around the California Channel Islands, pigeons were tried as a form of communication on Anacapa, Santa Catalina and Santa Cruz islands. Only on Santa Catalina did they provide any regular service.

In 1893, the Zahn brothers, Otto Johann and Oswald Francis, began training birds for island service, and their idea was embraced by the Banning brothers, who allowed the Zahns to place a pigeon loft at the Hotel Metropole in Avalon. From 1894 to 1898 pigeons carried mail from Avalon across the Santa Barbara Channel to Los Angeles. The two brothers reached an agreement with Western Union where it would not build a telegraph line to the isolated island so long as the pigeons did not compete with it on the mainland. Fifty birds were trained, carrying three copies of each message because of the danger of hunters and predators. They made the 48-mile passage in about one hour, bringing letters, news clippings from the Los Angeles Times, and emergency summons for doctors. In three seasons of operation only two letters failed to come through, but at $.50 to $1.00 per message the service was not profitable, and in 1898 the Zahn brothers ended the post.

In the News~


August 12, 1904 [OC]: “A party of Venturans are over on Anacapa Island this week and have sent back a couple of carrier pigeons which they took over with them. The last one to arrive brought the following message as published in the Free Press: Anacapa Island, August 10, 7:30 A.M. — All well. Talbert made flapjacks and is now in favor. Viles has discovered a mermaid and is happy. Rowe, the Englishman, had a narrow escape yesterday but was rescued by Webster. Details later… Rowe has taken out the first papers and wants to be the first postmaster of Anacapa Island. De gang.”


March 27, 1941 [Ogden Standard Examiner]: “Pigeons play role in war. San Diego, Calif., March 27 — An experiment with carrier pigeons to determine their usefulness in over-water flying assignments was termed highly satisfactory today by Maj. James Jones, communications officer of the marine signal branch. He said the 1000 homing pigeons being trained in this section — all subject to draft by the government — would be welcome additions to sea-going military units. The army has used homing pigeons in the transmission of messages, but naval forces never adopted the method because of theories the birds were unreliable over expanses of water. Eighteen pigeons were released by the marines Tuesday from San Clemente Island, 50 miles offshore. Twelve arrived a few hours after being turned loose, some of the birds making the flight in two hours. Five were listed today as missing.”

Pigeon's message

  • HAGER, Anna Marie "Winged Mail: From Avalon to Bunker Hill [1894-1898]" (Dawson's Book Shop, 1985)

  • Lockwood, DeWitt C. Carrier-Pigeons of Santa Catalina. in St. Nicholas: Illustrated Magazines for Young Folks. New York: The Century Co. 22(113): 891-897, 1895.
[original in SCIF archives]

  • LOCKWOOD, DeWitt C. Pigeon-Post of Santa Catalina in Wide World Magazine 6:35 (502-505), March 1901 [1]

January 9, 1893 [LAEE]: Banning brothers are contemplating instituting a novel method of mail communication with the Island from the mainland. Heretofore, the steamer has been the only way to communicate with the island. It is now proposed to use carrier pigeons for carrying daily mail between the two points.”

January 11, 1893 [LAT/SCat]: “Avalon is preparing for a lively season the coming summer… Four carrier pigeons were brought over last Saturday to be domiciled here and trained for service as messengers between Avalon and San Pedro.”

February 6, 1894 [LAT/SCat]: “The carrier pigeon service between Los Angeles and Catalina Island is getting in shape, and promises to be quite a feature during the coming season… Otto Zahn arrives on Tuesday’s boat to arrange for a plant of 100 carrier pigeons, to be used in the increasing demand for messages across the channel.”

February 19, 1894 [LAT/SCat]: “The following special correspondence to The Times from Catalina Island was received yesterday via homing pigeons of Otto Zahn…”

February 26, 1894 [LAT/SCat]: “Sunday, February 18, four homing pigeons, belonging to Otto J. and O. F. Zahn, carried messages (special to The Times) from Avalon to their home loft in Los Angeles in a surprisingly short time…”

June 7, 1894 [LAT/SCat]: “A great amount of interest is manifested in the inauguration of The Times’ special carrier pigeon service between Los Angeles and the island. This letter is to be dispatched under this novel system of transportation. The pigeons, sixteen in number, arrived in good condition on the Falcon yesterday…”

July 12, 1894 [LAT/SCat]: “July 11. By Zahn’s Carrier Pigeon Service to the Times. Otto J. Zahn, the well-known breeder and flyer of homing pigeons, arrived on yesterday’s steamer, and will perfect arrangements at once for the regular daily service between The Times and Catalina Island. Orlando, the celebrated homer, which has a record of fifty-five minutes over the fifty-mile route across the channel to Los Angeles, is the bearer of this message. (Although a fog hung over the channel all day long, he and two other birds found their way over with apparent ease.) “

July 24, 1894 [LAT/SCat]: “Special dispatch to The Times by Zahn’s carrier pigeon, ‘Red Racer’…”

July 25, 1894 [LAT/SCat]: “Special dispatch to The Times by Zahn’s carrier pigeon, ‘Vesta’…”

July 30, 1894 [LAT/SCat]: “Special dispatch to The Times by Zahn’s carrier pigeon, ‘Orlando’…”

August 17, 1894 [LAT/SCat]: “Special dispatch to The Times by Zahn’s carrier pigeon, ‘Red Hawk’…”

August 25, 1894 [LAH]: “The Little Harbor Inn is going a good business, having a number of husets, while all the excursionists around the island stop there. Arrangements are being made by which the innkeeper is to be notified. Thus, when a big party starts off in the morning to go around the island, a pigeon will be sent to Little Harbor with a message to prepare dinner for so many. In this way communication will be kept up all over the island.”

August 28, 1894 [LAT/SCat]: “Special dispatch to The Times by Zahn’s carrier pigeon, ‘Ventura’…”

May 31, 1895 [LAT]: “Ever since Noah let loose from the window of the ark the carrier pigeon which returned at eventide with the satisfying proof in its beak that the waters were drying off the face of the earth, these graceful couriers of the air have been acknowledged as the earliest exposition of the modern telegraph. Although the speed of electricity has outstripped these winged messengers, there have been frequent instances during war years and on shipboard when the carrier-pigeon, even in these days, held a distinct advantage over recent science. In ancient days the carrier pigeon answered the purpose of the modern telephone admirably. The wealthy Roman when he went to the amphitheater used to carry a basket of carriers on his arm for the purpose of sending a message home to his wife containing a list of the names of guests he had invited to dine with him and ordering, perhaps, a change in the menu. The amphitheater was open at the top, and the released messenger would rise above the walls and fly home with the important information. According to the poets and romancers of the middle ages the carrier pigeon was the most trusted messenger between parted lovers, and was frequently employed in a more business-like and less sentimental way to bear messages of war or commercial news. In maintaining communication during the campaign of a besieged city these carrier pigeons are simply invaluable. During the Franco-German war they rendered remarkable service. They are still, or were recently, employed in England to announce the result of the great races, affording a surer and speedier means of transmitting private intelligence than the over-crowded telegraph, over which messages are frequently delayed for hours by the pressure of business. In nine cases out of ten the winged messenger would arrive at its destination while the dispatch was still waiting its turn on the telegrapher's desk. On June 1, The Times will inaugurate its second season of carrier pigeon service from Catalina Island. The service last year proved eminently satisfactory, the regularity and precision with which the Catalina correspondence was daily delivered by these winged messengers rivaling the modern telegraph. In one instance the swift homer Del Mar covered the air-line distance of fifty miles between Avalon and this city in as many minutes, thereby making a distinct record for himself, as thirty miles per hour is the average speed attained by carrier pigeons. Since the successful carrying out of the regular service for The Times last year, the plans of transmitting news per carrier pigeon has been adopted by the Cleveland and Buffalo Steamship Company on Lake Erie. The experiment was first tried there last October, when the steamer State of Ohio left her dock at Buffalo numbering among her passengers three as good homers as ever cleaved the air. By a singular coincidence the birds were put to a terrible test on their initial voyage, for before night a terrific gale set in, the wind blowing at the rate of seventy miles an hour, and the steamer rolling at the mercy of wind and wave. Under the able seamanship of her captain, however, the vessel weathered the storm by pulling into a lonely harbor on the Canadian shore, forty miles from the nearest telegraph station. The gale continued, and there was no telling when the vessel would be able to get off. In this emergency the pigeons proved their value. Messages bearing tidings of the safety of the steamer were liberated on a strange shore and in a howling storm. Four hours later they reached their loft in Buffalo, some eighty or ninety miles away. The message was immediately telephoned down town to the steamship company's office, where it arrived when the office was crowded with the anxious friends and relatives of those on board the vessel which was believed to have been lost in the gale. Instead of the expected news of disaster there came the message that the steamer was safe sheltered at Long Point, and named a number of other vessels which had also taken refuge there. The joyful tidings was telegraphed to the Cleveland offices, and the intelligent homers were declared by the delighted steamship officials to eclipse all modern scientific discoveries in the way of transmitting messages when electric appliances were powerless. Since that time not a steamer has left the company's dock without some homers aboard. A visit to the Zahn loft on Hope Street, just above the Normal School, is full of interest. Here are some sixty homers, forty-five of which are in active training service, and will this summer transport the news daily from Catalina to The Times. The Zahn brothers, who own these valuable and intelligent pets, are glad to welcome visitors and tell all about the wonderful little birds. They began raising homers three or four years ago as a matter of amusement, but the birds have proved not only interesting but valuable to their young owners. During the season four birds are shipped daily to Avalon At 3 p.m. each day the birds are liberated, bearing The Times message, written on the thinnest of tissue paper, which is folded into a soft, compact roll and securely tied to the pigeon's foot. When liberated the pigeons (usually two or more are sent together) circle about the island a few minutes to get their bearings, then strike off over the water in an air-line for Los Angeles. When they arrive here they fly at once to the loft, entering through a little opening guarded by wires connected with an electric bell in the Zahn residence. AS the bird pushes aside the wire the bell instantly goes off, announcing to the young owners that the homer has arrived. The message is removed then, and the bird liberated among his fellows in the loft where he is generously fed. The Zahn brothers have another loft at Avalon containing some forty homers who will this season be brought over in couples and quartettes to San Pedro, where they will be liberated each morning bearing back to the island the bulletin of the morning news as printed each day on the first page of The Times, comprising the briefed telegraphic, Pacific Coast and local news. By this method the bulletin will reach Avalon several hours before the newspapers will arrive by steamer.

June 3, 1895 [LAT/SCat]: “G. M. Arthur, uncle of Bayly, secretary of the California Homing Club in Oakland, is spending a few days on the island and was one of the interested spectators yesterday when the Zahn pigeons made their flight. Two trained flyers, Orlando and Whitewings (the latter bearing The Times message) and thirteen young pigeons making their trial trip, were liberated. The birds started promptly on their homeward trip, only pausing to circle two or three times above the roof of the Metropole to get their bearings, when they struck off in an air-line for Los Angeles.”

July 6, 1895 [Evening Star, Washington, DC]: “Catalina's pigeon post. Probably the only regular feathered mail service in this country. [From the San Francisco Chronicle.] So far as I can learn, the only regular pigeon post service on this side of the continent or the other is that which bears messages every day in the summer season between Los Angeles and the little town of Avalon, on Catalina Island, and bears them at a speed which can be beaten only by the telegraph or telephone. The steamers run once a day between island and mainland, and once it has cast loose from the wharf on the island, with a summer population of perhaps several thousands, is as completely cut off from the world as thought it were in mid-ocean, and yet the shore is a scant twenty miles away. The demand for some additional grew. Often there were men of affairs among the visitors, and they were not infrequently more distressed to find means of communication. I remember hearing one financier declare: "I'd give $500 gladly to get a dispatch to Los Angeles; it would be worth $5,000 to me easy." It remained for two young men of Los Angeles, Otto and Oswald Zahn, to relieve the island visitors and residents from their embarrassing isolation. This was accomplished by the establishment of a carrier pigeon post between Avalon and Los Angeles. The service was inaugurated last summer and conducted for several weeks with unequivocal success. It was feared at first that the pigeons, which are distinctly "land birds", might hesitate to fly across so large a body of water; but, as far as known, there need have been no cause for anxiety on this point. The message bearers usually started without delay, arriving at their destination with a certainty and promptness almost incredible. The air-line distance from Avalon to Los Angeles is about fifty miles. This was accomplished by some of the Catalina flyers in fifty minutes. From three to four hours is required to make the trip by railroad and steamer. Last year a considerable revenue was earned in the forwarding of dispatches from Catalina by the winged messengers. Small bills posted conspicuously about the town of Avalon convey the somewhat startling information to the irresolute islander that "private messages and business orders may be forwarded at any hour of the day, and, in connection with the telephone, telegraph and cable lines, to any part of the world." The young pigeon fanciers also add to their income by supplying the daily press of Los Angeles with the latest news from Catalina. Last year the Zahns had not more than a dozen homers in the service, and it was found by repeated flyings at short intervals that the birds toward the end of the season became less reliable. It is not the flight across the water that exhausts them, but the boxing and shipping on the return trip. The Zahn lofts at Avalon and Los Angeles number this year nearly 100 birds of high degree, and these will insure constant and efficient service to and from the island throughout the summer. In a very few instances the birds have been wounded by pot hunters or thoughtless sportsmen.”

August 6, 1896 [LAT/SCat]: “Special to The Times by Homing-pigeon, Philopena, of the Catalina Carrier Pigeon Service…”

January 9, 1898 [LAT]: “George H. Humphreys, who expects to reestablish the carrier-pigeon service between Avalon and Los Angeles on the 1st of February, came over Tuesday. When ten miles out from San Pedro he released fifteen burds that he is training for this work. The time previous they were flown from Wilmington. On Wednesday ten birds were taken from the cote here and liberated from the steamer when ten miles from Avalon. They will be used by the Banning Company to send messages both ways.”


July 22, 1895 [SBDI]: “Dr. and Mrs. R. J. Hall, Mr. and Mrs. F. M. Whitney and party, leaving yesterday in the Restless for the islands took with then a carrier pigeon belonging to M. W. Pierce. They intend turning the bird loose some time today, with a message telling of their arrival at Friar's Harbor, Santa Cruz Island, where they will camp for two weeks. Mr. Pierce has been raising pigeons for several years, and the homer pigeons now in use between Catalina Island and Los Angeles are from his place. He is breeding the Blue Homer and the Black Dragon carrier, and it was one of the former that was taken by Dr. Hall’s party. As soon as the fog cleared from the channel today, the pigeon was to be set free; he was expected to cover the distance, 25 miles, in about as many minutes, as they fly 60 miles per hour. The same bird brought a message from Dos Pueblos Canyon, a distance of 18 or 20 miles, in less than 20 minutes, some time ago. It is the intention hereafter to adopt the carrier pigeon service as a means of communication between the islands and Santa Barbara; and thus avoid the possibility concerning the safety of pleasure parties, of which an illustration was furnished by the recent trip of the Restless. At four o’clock, the pigeon had not arrived; a heavy fog bank has been hanging over the channel all day.”

July 24, 1895 [SBDI]: “The carrier pigeon taken to the island by Mr. Whitney has made no appearance yet; Mr. Pierce said this morning he did not know how to account for it. The bird was either not set free, or has been lost. He intends sending a pair with the next boat.”

July 25, 1895 [SBDI]: “The [Daily] Independent has succeeded in inaugurating a carrier pigeon news service between the camps on Santa Cruz Island and Santa Barbara. The anxiety and uneasiness occasioned by friends and parents on the mainland not knowing the outcome of the recent trip of the party across the channel, has shown the necessity of some steps to prevent a repetition. The Independent has taken the initiative in the matter and hopes to serve the readers daily letters from Cuava [sic] Valdez. If nothing happens and if the birds cross the water without ill effect, messages will be published each day telling happenings on Santa Cruz. The first pigeon is expected tomorrow.”

July 25, 1895 [SBDI]: “The sloop Restless came in last evening about 4:30 from the island... Captain Burtis reports that the carrier pigeon taken on the last trip was turned loose Sunday afternoon, and started directly toward Santa Barbara. It never came back.”

July 25, 1895 [LAT/SB]: “The schooner Restless is in from the islands. Captain Burtis reports that he let loose a carrier-pigeon from Friar’s Harbor Sunday afternoon with messages for persons ion this city. The dove, however, has failed to make its appearance at its cote in Santa Barbara. Captain Burtis says it reminds him of the raven that Noah sent out, and which never came back. The carrier was the property of M. W. Pierce.”

July 26, 1895 [LAT/SB]: “The schooner Restless departed last Wednesday night for Quava Val Des, Santa Cruz Island, with a coop of carrier pigeons. These pigeons were sent to the island by the Independent, and for the purpose of having a daily communication with the numerous campers at Quava Val Des. These birds are the property of M. W. Pierce, George Culbertson and M. Hawcroft. There are two noted flyers in the lot of pigeons designed for this service. A pigeon was to have been let loose Wednesday night, but as none has shown up at the cote today, it is thought that the Restless did not arrive at its destination in time.”

July 28, 1895 [LAT/SB]: “One of the independent carrier pigeons arrived this afternoon from Quava Val Dez, Santa Cruz Island, but unfortunately lost its message en route.”

July 31, 1895 [LAH]: “The carrier pigeons between Santa Cruz Island and this city still fail to carry, but a sloop arrived today from Ladies’ Harbor and Cueva Valdez with the news that the hordes of Barbarians were enjoying good health and having a splendid time.”

July 2, 1897 [SBDI]: “Cueva Valdez is being deserted this week. Last of the interesting series of letters from the Independent correspondent on the island: Camp Cueva Valdez, Thursday, July 1, 1897. All is bustle in the camp this morning. The Lizzie Belle W is to take part of our party to the mainland today and Commander in chief Kittridge has told off those who are to go. Some of the tents are coming down, and we realize that our splendid holiday is about over… Carrier pigeons have been sent to Santa Barbara every day. One sulked upon being let loose. He hung about camp for several days, but finally joined two companions who were intent upon doing their duty, and disappeared toward the mainland… But the Lizzie Belle W is coming into the harbor, and in a half hour twenty of us will say good-bye to Cueva Valdez.”

July 2, 1897 [SBDI]: “Flight of a carrier pigeon from the islands. Bird crosses the thirty-mile channel in 45 minutes with news for the Independent… The pigeon was one of Fred Moore’s and it brought a message to the Independent from Cueva Valdez. The message was written at noon, just as the last members of the party wqere preparing to leave camp…The messages are written on very thin, specially-prepared paper, and then rolled and tied snugly, but not too tight about the bird’s leg…”

July 7, 1897 [SBDI]: “Can carrier pigeons fly 2000 miles without stop?… The flight from Honolulu would be about 2000 miles… Taking the best time made by the birds crossing from Santa Cruz Island, thirty miles in forty-five minutes, it would require fifty hours…”

September 13, 1898 [SBMP]: “Fred Moore of this city owns some fine carrier pigeons, and he has them well trained. One day last week two of his birds made the trip from Scorpion Harbor, Santa Cruz Island, to Santa Barbara, a distance of twenty-eight miles, bringing messages in forty minutes.”

1907 [SCICo]: “We have notices that in several places a good deal of money has been made from the sale of squabs and even full grown pigeons, and as we have ample opportunity to feed these animals without great expense, we thought that we should study the matter and choose a proper location for a pigeon house.”

July 17, 1915 [SBMP]: “Captain Ira K. Eaton, skipper of the powerboat Sea Wolf, and proprietor of the popular island resort at Pelican Bay on Santa Cruz Island, is about to inaugurate a new feature in his island operation. The captain has recently been presented by Mr. Cowles, superintendent of the Fithian Ranch, with twenty young carrier pigeons, and he will soon have a pigeon messenger service between Pelican Bay and the mainland. He has already started the training of one pair, and he thinks the birds will be able to work the full distance of the channel's width within two or three weeks. Other birds will be put in training as fast as they reach the right age and strength, and it will not be long before all of them will be able to meet all demands upon them for the peculiar service to which they are bred.”

May 20, 1919 [SBDN]: “Carrier pigeons as a means of communication between the Channel Islands and the mainland will soon become common, as large numbers of birds are now being trained for that purpose. At present the only means of communication is by boat, the installation of a woreless system having been halted during the war by government order. Captain Ira Eaton has a flock of forty or fifty pigeons at his camp on Santa Cruz Island which are the birds that are being used. Eighteen of the young squabs are to be brought over to the mainland and trained from the Belvedere within a few weeks. It is expected that they will make the thirty mile trip across the channel easily within half an hour, so that at any time messages may be dispatched quickly. They are now being used between Pelican Bay and Valdez on the island.”

August 28, 1929 [ ]: “The homing pigeons owned by the veteran sea captain Ira Eaton are being taught by their master to carry communication from the mainland to the island. When the Sea Wolf of Captain Eaton leaves the island wharf it carries a dozen of the homing birds from the island flock, the birds being released en route to the mainland. The homers of the Santa Barbara flock are carried farther toward the island each day, so that they can almost traverse the channel straight as an arrow.” Presumably this venture did not work out, as nothing further was reported.


July 15, 1899 [SBMP]: “M. A. Botello sent two homing pigeons over to the island on the schooner Santa Rosa, Captain Russell, by J. W. Spoonover, who will release them, and Mr. Botello is expecting his pigeons this morning with notes bearing the hour of their flight and any news concerning Santa Rosa Island.”


January 10, 1897 [SFC]: “First Message From Farallon. Weather Report From Daisy Doud Brought by Pigeons. Feasibility of a Much-Mooted Service Practically Demonstrated. The wind-swept Islands are placed in direct communication for the first time. The homing-pigeon service between the north [?] Farallon Island and San Francisco has early been demonstrated its entire feasibility. It was put upon its feet, so to speak, by A. Carlisle during the past week. When Miss Daisy Doud went out to take her position as schoolteacher on the wind-swept and surf-stained rocks Mr. Carlisle went along and carried out fifty homing pigeons. Some of these he let fly on the way to train them. Many were taken to the North Farallon and were there placed in a favorable position. Yesterday the first message by carrier pigeon ever sent out from the Farallon Islands was received in this city by A. Carlisle from Miss Daisy Doud. This was enclosed in an aluminum cylinder weighing only eight grains and was written on a prepared slip of thin paper of a prescribed form. On one side of the slip was the first weather report ever received in San Francisco directly from the Farallon. Considering that the Weather Bureau and the Chamber of Commerce and A. Carlisle have been cooperating to get a weather service established, it seemed fitting that Miss Doud should, accepting the position of amateur weather observer in connection with her duties as a teacher, send first an account of the weather. This she did. This, which was no less than a notification also to the mercantile and shipping community of San Francisco that hereafter they will be able to gather such marine news as may come in view of the Farallon, left the North Farallon at 9:40 A.M. At that time the weather was hazy and the wind from the northeast blowing freshly. The time of transmission is not exactly known. This being the first flying of a bird in actual service, and the route being new and the weather thick the speed was not what it will be. The reverse side of the message concerning the weather brought Miss Doud's first statement of life on the island as a teacher, and for its intrinsic interest as the first to be flown over sea and land from that locality is given in full. It is as follows: "Alive and well to tell the story. Think I shall like the place and people very much. Please let Mr. Wood know. Shall begin school on Monday. Mrs. Beeman says to come back and finish your coffee. Daisy Annette Doud." The message was addressed to A. Carlisle. The reference to the coffee was a playful allusion to Mr. Carlisle's condition, in all probability, after a sea voyage, and a somewhat abrupt landing in flat-bottom boat, which seemed to roll twice to every wave that came along, and also seemed to have more water inside of it than there was in the rolling ocean outside. Mr. Wood, who is mentioned, is the architect, who is Miss Doud's uncle. The service will continue without interruption until all the birds have been flown from the island. There will be no interruption if other birds can be put on the island in time. There have been no facilities for regularly landing there heretofore. The demonstration of feasibility of the messenger service may help to provide facilities to rectify this. At the worst there will be birds on the wing bound from the Farallon to Berkeley, bringing news possibly for San Francisco, for some days to come. While there is no cable to the Farallon homing pigeon furnishes the only means of communication for the service by Mr. Carlisle, who is an enthusiastic pigeon fancier.”

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