Before wireless and telephone reached across water, communication between islands and the mainland relied on boats—unless, of course, you used homing pigeons.

Several islands off Maine and New Hampshire benefited from pigeon posts, made possible by birds known for an uncanny ability to find their way home, even from hundreds of miles away.

In the early 1900s, residents of Matinicus and Criehaven Islands, 20 long miles from Rockland, were lucky to have for a physician Dr. Edwin Gould, who enlisted homing pigeons as his personal “nurses.” At that time, doctors traveled to the islands by mail steamer. Seaworthy boats owned by islanders also stood ready to fetch a doctor. But the weather was unpredictable, and doctors often couldn’t reach the islands or were stuck there for days or months until a gale played out, or the fog lifted.

When Gould visited patients on Matinicus and Criehaven, along with his doctor’s bag he carried a crate of homing pigeons. Before he left, Gould would give the patient’s family a few birds with instructions on how to care for them and how to attach messages to their legs. With a note about a patient’s condition strapped to a leg, Gould’s “nurses” flew to their loft in Tenants Harbor, taking about 40 minutes in good weather. (Today, the Rockland-Matinicus ferry takes over two hours.)

Messages were then telephoned to Gould’s office, and he would determine the need for making another trip out. Gould’s pigeon post allowed him to monitor the health of his island patients, while maintaining a practice on the mainland. His pioneering flying nurses attracted global attention, with inquiries about the service coming from as far away as New Zealand.

Prior to radio and telephone, many lighthouses around the world used homing pigeons for communication, including the infamous Boon Island Light, eight miles off Maine’s southern coast. William C. Williams worked on the storm-battered ledge from 1885 to 1911, living on the island with his wife and children, plus the other keepers’ families and a few animals. Telephone lines ran between the keepers’ quarters, so Williams could phone another keeper in an emergency, but no phone lines extended to the mainland.

At one point during the 1890s, Williams kept a small flock of homing pigeons to help alleviate the difficulty of communicating solely by boat. Beside family news, the birds supposedly delivered messages announcing the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898, and McKinley’s victory over Bryan in the 1900 presidential election.

Star Island, seven miles off New Hampshire, now offers Wi-Fi, but from 1957-1963, a pigeon post provided the most direct connection between the island’s Oceanic Hotel and the mainland. In addition to hotel guests, lunch was available for day-trippers, but to calculate how many meals to prepare each day, the chefs needed a daily incoming head count.

When a visitor in 1954 suggested that the hotel try homing pigeons, the staff didn’t hesitate. In 1955 a loft was built under the gables at the top of the hotel. A small flock was trained by taking them to points farther and farther away from their loft, then releasing them to fly back. When the birds could fly home all the way from Portsmouth, Operation Star Island was born.

Each day, pigeons were sent into Portsmouth on an early morning boat. When the return boat full of visitors left the harbor, a hotel employee wrote the number of travelers on a tiny slip of paper, inserted it into a canister attached to one of the pigeon’s legs, and let the bird go. Singly, or in small flocks, the birds flew to Star Island with nearly a complete success rate, even in fog. As a final flourish to their performance, they circled the flagpole on the hotel lawn before popping into their loft.

At the end of the season, the pigeons went to lofts on the mainland, wintering often in Hingham, Mass. at the loft of Dr. Eliot Hubbard, a pigeon fancier who had bred some of the hotel’s birds.

In 1957, a telephone was installed on Star Island, but since it was intended only for urgent business, the pigeon post continued. By this time, the birds had become celebrities, impressing island guests with their superior navigational and flying skills. Every day, guests watched the sky for their return, and for their unfaltering circling of the flagpole.

In 1963, the hotel bought a citizens band radio, which made contact with boats possible at any moment. No longer needed, the homing pigeons retired that year to Dr. Hubbard’s comfortable loft.

Elizabeth Macalaster, a part-time resident of Friendship, is working on a nonfiction book about the role of homing pigeons in the U.S. Navy. She’s also written an adventure/thriller, Reckoning At Harts Pass, in which homing pigeons make an appearance.