National Stamp Collecting Month: Mail by Pigeons

New Zealand - Scott #1436 (1997)
New Zealand – Scott #1436 (1997)

The use of homing pigeons to carry messages, known as pigeon post, dates back at least 2000 years. Pigeons were effective as messengers due to their natural homing abilities. The pigeons were transported to a destination in cages, where messages would be attached to their legs or necks. The pigeon would then fly back to its home where the owner could read their mail. They have been used in many places around the world. Pigeons have also been used to great effect in military situations, and are in this case referred to as war pigeon.

As a method of communication, pigeon post is likely as old as the ancient Persians from whom the art of training the birds probably came. The Romans used pigeon messengers to aid their military over 2000 years ago. Frontinus said that Julius Caesar used pigeons as messengers in his conquest of Gaul. The Greeks conveyed the names of the victors at the Olympic Games to their various cities by this means.

By the 12th century, messenger pigeons were being used in Baghdad. Naval chaplain Henry Teonge (circa 1620–1690) describes in his diary a regular pigeon postal service being used by merchants between İskenderun and Aleppo in the Levant. The Mughals also used messenger pigeons.

Before the telegraph, this method of communication had a considerable vogue amongst stockbrokers and financiers. The Dutch government established a civil and military system in Java and Sumatra early in the 19th century, the birds being obtained from Baghdad. In 1851, the German-born Paul Julius Reuter opened an office in the City of London which transmitted stock market quotations between London and Paris via the new Calais to Dover cable. Reuter had previously used pigeons to fly stock prices between Aachen and Brussels, a service that operated for a year until a gap in the telegraph link was closed.

Engraving of homing pigeons, with messages attached. Published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, No. 275, April, 1873.
Engraving of homing pigeons, with messages attached. Published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, No. 275, April, 1873.

Details of the employment of pigeons during the siege of Paris in 1870–1871 led to a revival in the training of pigeons for military purposes. Numerous societies were established for keeping pigeons of this class in all important European countries; and, in time, various governments established systems of communication for military purposes by pigeon post. After pigeon post between military fortresses had been thoroughly tested, attention was turned to its use for naval purposes, to send messages to ships in nearby waters. It was also used by news agencies and private individuals at various times. Governments in several countries established lofts of their own. Laws were passed making the destruction of such pigeons a serious offense; premiums to stimulate efficiency were offered to private societies, and rewards given for destruction of birds of prey. Before the advent of radio, pigeons were used by newspapers to report yacht races, and some yachts were actually fitted with lofts.

During the establishment of formal pigeon post services, the registration of all birds was introduced. At the same time, in order to hinder the efficiency of the systems of foreign countries, difficulties were placed in the way of the importation of their birds for training, and in a few cases falcons were specially trained to interrupt the service war-time, the Germans having set the example by employing hawks against the Paris pigeons in 1870–1871. No satisfactory method of protecting the weaker birds seems to have been developed, though the Chinese formerly provided their pigeons with whistles and bells to scare away birds of prey.

As radio telegraphy and telephony were developed, the use of pigeons became limited to fortress warfare[clarification needed] by the 1910s. Although the British Admiralty had attained a very high standard of efficiency discontinued its pigeon service in the early 20th century. In contrast, large numbers of birds were still kept by France, Germany and Russia at the outbreak of the First World War.

In modern days, rafting photographers still use pigeons as a sneakernet to transport digital photos on flash media from the camera to the tour operator.

Paris Pigeon Post (1870-1871)
Souvenir poster for the Paris siege pigeon post, 1871
Poster for the Paris siege pigeon post, 1871

The pigeon post which was in operation while Paris was besieged during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871 is probably the most famous. Barely six weeks after the outbreak of hostilities, the Emperor Napoleon III and the French Army of Châlons surrendered at Sedan on September 2, 1870.

There were two immediate consequences: the fall of the Second Empire and the swift Prussian advance on Paris. As had been expected, the normal channels of communication into and out of Paris were interrupted during the four-and-a-half months of the siege, and, indeed, it was not until the middle of February 1871 that the Prussians relaxed their control of the postal and telegraph services.

With the encirclement of the city on September 18, the last overhead telegraph wires were cut on the morning of 19 September, and the secret telegraph cable in the bed of the Seine was located and cut on September 27. Although a number of postmen succeeded in passing through the Prussian lines in the earliest days of the siege, others were captured and shot, and there is no proof of any post, certainly after October, reaching Paris from the outside, apart from private letters carried by unofficial individuals. For an assured communication into Paris, the only successful method was by the time-honored carrier-pigeon, and thousands of messages, official and private, were thus taken into the besieged city.

During the course of the siege, pigeons were regularly taken out of Paris by balloon. Initially, one of the pigeons carried by a balloon was released as soon as the balloon landed so that Paris could be apprised of its safe passage over the Prussian lines. Soon a regular service was in operation, based first at Tours and later at Poitiers. The pigeons were taken to their base after their arrival from Paris and when they had preened themselves, been fed and rested, they were ready for the return journey. Tours lies some 200 km from Paris and Poitiers some 300 km; to reduce the flight distance the pigeons were taken by train as far forward towards Paris as was safe from Prussian intervention. Before release, they were loaded with their dispatches. The first dispatch was dated September 27 and reached Paris on October 1, but it was only from October 16, when an official control was introduced, that a complete record was kept.

Bronze medallion marking the Paris Seige Pigeon Post created by artist Charles Degeorge for the French Military Communications in December 1871. A pigeon is released by the city goddess Lutetia sitting l. on a cannon. In the background up at r. a hot air balloon carrying homing pigeons. 2 lines in exergue:
Bronze medallion marking the Paris Seige Pigeon Post created by artist Charles Degeorge for the French Military Communications in December 1871. A pigeon is released by the city goddess Lutetia sitting l. on a cannon. In the background up at r. a hot air balloon carrying homing pigeons. 2 lines in exergue: “PARIS 1870-1871″/ A pigeon landing l., curved above: “MINISTÈRE DE LA GUERRE”, 2 lines in exergue: “COMMUNICATIONS AÉRIENNES”. Button 12.

The pigeons carried two kinds of dispatch: official and private, both of which are later described in detail. The service was put into operation for the transmission of information from the Delegation to Paris and was opened to the public in early November. The private dispatches were sent only when an official dispatch was being sent, since the latter would have absolute priority.

The introduction of the Dagron microfilms eased any problems there might have been in claims for transport since their volumetric requirements were very small. For example: one tube sent during January contained 21 microfilms, of which 6 were official dispatches and 15 were private, while a later tube contained 16 private dispatches and 2 official ones. In order to improve the chances of the dispatches successfully reaching Paris, the same dispatch was sent by several pigeons, one official dispatch being repeated 35 times and the later private dispatches were repeated on average 22 times.

The records show that from January 7, 1871, to the end of the seige, 61 tubes were sent off, containing 246 official and 671 private dispatches. The practice was to send off the dispatches not only by pigeons of the same release but also of successive releases until Paris signaled the arrival of those dispatches. When the pigeon reached its particular loft in Paris, its arrival was announced by a bell in the trap in the loft. Immediately, a watchman relieved it of its tube which was taken to the Central Telegraph Office where the content was carefully unpacked and placed between two thin sheets of glass. The photographs are said to have been projected by magic lantern on to a screen where the enlargement could be easily read and written down by a team of clerks. This would certainly be true for the microfilms, but the earlier dispatches on photographic paper were read through microscopes.

An official letter from London to the General Director of Posts and Telegraphs on Tour with the inscription “On Her Majesty’s Service” containing leeters intended for further dispatch by pigeon post to besieged Paris (1870–1871)..
An official letter from London to the General Director of Posts and Telegraphs on Tour with the inscription “On Her Majesty’s Service” containing leeters intended for further dispatch by pigeon post to besieged Paris (1870–1871)..

The transcribed messages were written out on forms (telegraph forms for private messages, with or without the special annotation “pigeon”) and so delivered. The interval between sending a private message and its receipt by the addressee depended on many factors: the density of telegraphic traffic to and from the sender’s town, the time taken to register the message, to pass it to the printers where it was assembled with its 3000 companions into a single page, and then to assemble the pages into nines or twelves or sixteens. During the four months of the siege, 150,000 official and 1 million private communications were carried into Paris by this method.

The service was formally terminated on February 1, 1871. The last pigeons were released on February 1 and 3. The pigeons that were still alive were now official property and were sold at the Depot du Mobilier de l’Etat. Their value as racing pigeons was reflected by the average price of only 1 franc 50 centimes, but two pigeons, reported to have made three journeys, were purchased by an enthusiast for 26 francs.

General Post Office notice regarding the pigeon post in Paris, 1870
General Post Office notice regarding the pigeon post in Paris, 1870

The success of the pigeon post, both for official and for private messages, did not pass unnoticed by the military forces of the European powers and in the years that followed the Franco-Prussian War pigeon sections were established in their armies. The advent of wireless communication led to rising pigeon unemployment, although in certain particular applications pigeons provided the only method of communication. But never again were pigeons called upon to perform such a tremendous public service as that which they had maintained during the siege of Paris and Italy.

Canadian Pigeon post

Major-General Donald Roderick Cameron, then Commandant of the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ontario recommended an international pigeon service for marine search and rescue and military service in a paper entitled “Messenger Pigeons, a National Question”. Sir Charles Hibbert Tupper, then Minister of Marine and Fisheries supported the pigeon policy. Colonel Goldie, Assistant Adjutant General and Major Waldron of the Royal Artillery, and Captain Dopping-Hepenstal of the Royal Engineers carried through the plan. The pigeon post between look-out stations at lighthouses on islands and the mainland at the citadel in Halifax, Nova Scotia provided a messenger service from 1891 until it was discontinued in 1895. The pigeon post faced a heavy mortality among the pigeons as many were lost on the operations. The flight from the Citadel in Halifax, Nova Scotia to Sable Island, for example, was difficult for the pigeons to complete.

Pigeon Post for Catalina Island, U.S.A.

From 1894 to 1898, pigeons carried mail from Avalon across the Santa Barbara Channel to Los Angeles in California. Two pigeon fanciers, brothers Otto J. and O. F. Zahn, 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.

Pigeon POST during the world Wars
Canadian soldiers prepare a pigeon for flight, 1915.
Canadian soldiers prepare a pigeon for flight, 1915.

In the First World War, pigeons were used extensively for carrying messages. During the Battle of Ypres in 1915, pigeons were used to carry messages from the front line back to the British headquarters. Although German marksmen were deployed to shoot the birds down, many survived and delivered their messages. Pigeons were also carried in tanks during battles and released through tiny portholes in the side. Mine-sweeping boats carried pigeons so that in the event of an attack by a U-boat, a pigeon could be released with a message confirming the exact location of the sinking boat, often resulting in the crew being saved. Even seaplanes carried pigeons to relay urgent information about enemy movements. In the Second World War, pigeons were used less due to advances in telecommunication systems and radar, but they were still used in active service in Europe, India and Burma.

Indian Pigeon Post

The Orissa police in India stablished regular pigeon posts at Cuttack, Chatrapur, Kendrapara, Sambalpur and Denkanal and these pigeons rose to the occasion in times of emergencies and natural calamities. During the centenary celebrations of the Indian postal service in 1954, the Orissa police pigeons demonstrated their capacity by conveying the message of inauguration from the President of India to the Prime Minister.

The last known pigeon messaging service was disbanded in 2006 after 60 years of active service. India’s Police Pigeon Service, based in eastern Orrisa, retired its 800 birds to zoos and sanctuaries throughout the state due to advances in electronic communication. Until 1988, carrier pigeons had provided daily communications between Orissa’s 400 police stations across the state. Pigeons were used to carry essential messages during two natural disasters: the massive cyclone that hit Kendrapara State in 1971 and the unprecedented floods in coastal areas of the state in 1982. Their ability to fly in adverse weather conditions is thought to have saved many human lives.

Queensland, New Zealand’s pigeon-gram
Map of Hauraki Gulf, New Zealand, showing Auckland and Great Barrier Island.
Map of Hauraki Gulf, New Zealand, showing Auckland and Great Barrier Island.

On May 7, 1997, New Zealand Post issued two triangular stamps to commemorate the centennial of its pigeon post. Before the pigeon post service was established, the only regular connection between the community on Great Barrier Island (90 kilometers 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 northern coast in October 1894, with the loss of 121 lives, and the news took several days to reach the mainland.

On January 29, 1896, a New Zealand Herald reporter travelled to Great Barrier Island by the Northern Steamship Company for a seaborne memorial of the SS Wairarapa sinking. Having completed his story, the reporter filed it by attaching five pages of letter-sized paper to Ariel, a pigeon owned by Auckland based pigeon fancier Walter Fricker. The dispatch took less than 75 minutes to reach the mainland.

After a series of experiments, Fricker began his ‘Great Barrier Pigeongram Service’ in February 1987. He charged 2 shillings a message; this was quite a sum, but the Post Office refused to subsidize the service. Free enterprise being what it is, Fricker was immediately challenged by J. E. Parkin, who opened a ‘Great Barrier Postal Pigeon Service. Parkin was chastised by the authorities for using ”postal,” so he dropped it in favor of ”pigeongram,” causing confusion with Fricker’s service. Finally, S. H. Howie weighed in with The Original Great Barrier Pigeongram Service, founded on May 14, 1897. According to an article in Pacific Way magazine, “Even the pigeons were confused, sometimes following the wrong birds to the wronglofts with the wrong messages.”

The Post Office, Tryphena, Great Barrier Island, from The Auckland Weekly News, January 20, 1899, (Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-18990120-2-4)
The Post Office, Tryphena, Great Barrier Island, from The Auckland Weekly News, January 20, 1899, (Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-18990120-2-4)
A hasty 1900 pigeongram sent to H. Winkelmann by Charles Werner, a great Barrier Island resident. “Dear Mr Winkelmann,” it reads, “Charlie Soborne has smashed his arm last night from the wrist to the elbow by a rifle bullet. His father says that the arm will have to be amputated at once so Ernest asked me to send you this... send a steamer at once to the Barrier... also if possible a lawyer.” (Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 7-A11539 via Smithsonian.com blog, November 1, 2017).
A hasty 1900 pigeongram sent to H. Winkelmann by Charles Werner, a great Barrier Island resident. “Dear Mr Winkelmann,” it reads, “Charlie Soborne has smashed his arm last night from the wrist to the elbow by a rifle bullet. His father says that the arm will have to be amputated at once so Ernest asked me to send you this… send a steamer at once to the Barrier… also if possible a lawyer.” (Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 7-A11539 via Smithsonian.com blog, November 1, 2017).

The pigeons carried letters written on extremely lightweight rice paper and were known as “flimsies.” The first stamps, used by Howie in late 1898, also used the phrase ”special post,” which also drew a rebuke from the post office, so they were overprinted ”pigeongram.” They were horizontal rectangles. In July 1899, Fricker issued his distinctive triangle-shaped stamps. Parkin by this time had withdrawn his service, in part because his price-cutting (he only charged a shilling and a half) also cut his profit. Finally, there were overprints for services to other islands. Most of the eight stamps are found perforated and imperforate and there are a variety of cancellations.

The stamps have been eagerly collected for their novelty value although they were issued by private companies and, thus, not considered actual postage stamps and are not listed in the standard catalogues. Some have become extremely rare.  It has been stated that these stamps were the first issued anywhere in the world for air mail. An extensive article about these issues, along with plenty of photographs, can be found on the Virtual New Zealand Stamps blog.

An account of the Auckland-Great Barrier Island Pigeon Post service as published in the September 13, 1899, edition of The Auckland Weekly News. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-18990915-6-4
An account of the Auckland-Great Barrier Island Pigeon Post service as published in the September 13, 1899, edition of The Auckland Weekly News. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-18990915-6-4
Pigeon Post House in Auckland, New Zealand. Photo taken on September 9, 2007.
Pigeon Post House in Auckland, New Zealand. Photo taken on September 9, 2007.

Initially, the service operated only from Great Barrier Island to Auckland, the reverse route being considered uneconomic. In Auckland, the building known as the Pigeon Post House located on the corner of Newton Road and Upper Queen Street (112 Newton Road, Newton, Auckland) was used for the pigeon-carrier service from 1897 until the early 20th century. Today, the building still exists as a private residence.

On Great Barrier Island, pigeon-gram agencies were established at Port Fitzroy, Okupu, and Whangaparara. Birds were sent over to the island on the weekly steamer and flew back to Auckland with up to five messages per bird written on “flimsies” and attached to their legs. Most pigeongrams were asking for supplies. Some personal notes were sent by this means, and miners on the island staked their gold claims through the service. In 1908, the service was ended when an undersea cable from Port Charles on Coromandel to Port Fitzroy, began to be used to transmit telegraph messages. The final death-knell was sounded on September 26, 1908, when the Postmaster General reported, ”Twelve and a half knots of cable were successfully laid from Tryphena, Great Barrier Island, to the mainland at Port Charles.”

New Zealand - Scott #1435 (1997
New Zealand – Scott #1435 (1997)
New Zealand - Scott #1435-1436 (1997) first day cover
New Zealand – Scott #1435-1436 (1997) first day cover

The stamps issued by New Zealand Post in 1997 reproduce the original triangular design of stamps produced in 1899 by The Great Barrier Pigeongram Agency. This was an unofficial service not run by The New Zealand Post and Telegraph Department. The original design was by Māori war veteran H.C. Wrigg, holder of the coveted New Zealand Cross, and the stamp was printed by The Auckland Star. The original colors of carmine (1 shilling) and dull blue (6 pence) were used in the new issue (Scott #1435-1436). The latter stamps were designed by Stephen Fuller of Wellington and printed by Southern Colour Printing using offset lithography in sheets of 50, perforated 13¾ x 14. The red stamp was denominated 40 cents while the blue one was 80 cents.

Additionally, two souvenir sheets were released containing these stamps both using a similar design containing four stamps (two each of the 40- and 80-cent values)  for sale at stamp shows that New Zealand Post attended. The first was issued on May 29 for the PACIFIC 97 World Philatelic Exhibition held at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, California, from May 29 until June 8 (Scott #1436a). This was the first (and only) international stamp show I ever attended and I can recall making combination covers with these and the first U.S. triangular stamps that had been issued shortly before in identical colors (although they were definitely not a joint issue!). The second sheet went on-sale November 13 to promote the AUPEX ’97 National Stamp Exhibition held from November 13-16, 1997 (Scott #1436b).

Flag of New Zealand
Piigeon Post
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