Hunting Turkeys in the Jungle
By Henry Browning
Figure 1 “Photo” A Kuna Indian tribe village in the jungles of Panama, South America.
Kuna grass, black palm, triple canopy, and bushmaster vipers aren’t exactly what you think of when one thinks of hunting turkey. But if you are in the Darien Province of the Republic of Panama, you might need to be familiar with the above mentioned obstacles and know how to avoid them. Most turkey hunters think of the Grand Slam, which consists of the following species, Eastern, Florida Osceola, Gould’s, Merriam’s, and the Rio Grande, as their turkey hunting goal. An Ocellated Turkey (Meleagris ocellata) is the less heard of and sometimes forgotten species, any die hard turkey hunter will need to complete his or her World Slam of Turkey hunting.
It was 1991 and I was stationed with the 5th Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment on Fort Davis, in the Republic of Panama. Fort Davis is located on the Atlantic side of the isthmus and bordering Gatun Lake. It was my first duty station and I was a young infantryman doing what I was told and terrified of the repercussions if I didn’t. I only had fishing on my mind and hadn’t thought about hunting, since I left the woods of North Florida before my enlistment into the Army.
If I recall correctly, it was May and we, Charlie Company, had just completed a rotation of opposing forces (OPFOR) or aggressors for the Jungle Warfare School on Fort Sherman. As always after a rotation we had been given two days of rest and relaxation (R&R) on Devils Beach, which we all enjoyed very much. The commander was holding an accountability formation and he mentioned that the company had been tasked in July to support a National Geographic Expedition and Central Identification Laboratory personnel in the remote mountains of the Darien Gap. They were supposed to be looking for some sort of float plane that was launched from a Japanese submarine in 1944. We were asked to provide a 12 Soldier detail and I quickly volunteered. Now you may ask what are Soldiers doing supporting a civilian expedition, but remember this area is very close to the Colombian border and
kidnapping and guerrilla activity were common.
In July, we met the 14 person team at Howard Air Force Base and flew via UH-60 and CH-47 to the town of Yaviza which became what they preferred to call our “expedition headquarters”. For us it was a simple patrol base. We linked up with our local Kuna Indian guides and regardless of what we were assured, quickly discovered they spoke little English. Within 24 hours we were breaking a path thru the jungle on our way to a latitude/longitude that only two people knew. We could not go 10 minutes without alerting another group of Howler Monkeys (Alouatta palliata) or crossing paths with a family group of the raccoon-like Coatis (Nasua nasua). Being a hunter and tracker I cannot walk 20 steps in the woods
without looking at every bare patch of ground I come across. Soon I started noticing a lot of animal tracks. That night when we (the gringo’s) were eating MREs (Meal, Ready to Eat)and Top Ramen, up walks an Indian carrying an Ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) that had just been killed and was ready for the fire. Well that quickly got this country boy’s attention and I started asking in broken English, how I could go out and attend one of their daily hunting parties. I was ensured that I would be able to go out with them on the 4th or 5th day. So I
began talking with my sergeant in charge, which just so happened to be a redneck from Arkansas. His responsibilities would not let him attend, even though he so desperately wanted to, but he gave me the green light as long as I took along a PRC-126 squad radio and didn’t stray more than a few “clicks” kilometers away.
On the fifth day we arrived at a location where the NATGEO teams would begin their grid searches and things kind of slowed down for us Soldiers. Between perimeter guard, escort
duty, and equipment maintenance, I finally got my chance to go out one afternoon with two of the Kuna guides. Their weapon of choice was a hollow bamboo type of tree about 6 to 7 feet in length and had an inside diameter about the size of a grape. The projectile was a very thin stick or twig about 6 to 8 inches long. It contained a wad of some kind of bark fiber that they
placed around the heavier end of the dart. The tip was coated with some sort of sticky brown resin. Many folks have told me that it was coated with Poison-Arrow Frog (Dendrobates azureus) secretion. I have seen the secretion that comes from the Poison-Arrow Frog and that was not it. But one thing I did understand from the guides was that it was some bad juju and if I was to stick myself with the business end of a dart, it would send me to, “Acostarse con dios”, or sleep with God.
Figure 2 “Photo” Kuna Indian tribe member with his native blow gun.
After a few practice shots they thought I was ready, so off we went. We quietly slipped down a small game trail and after about 30 minutes we stopped so that they could observe the area. Or I thought that is what they were saying. Their hand signs consisted of pointing to their eyes and then they would point to the jungle. I just took for granted that they wanted to stop and look around. We sat there till dark started falling around us and soon we heard something moving around in the brush. Just five minutes later out came this Capybara (Hydrochoerus
hydrochaeris) as close as 20 feet away. The guide to the left harvested it with one dart and a short tracking job. On the way back to our camp that night we walked along the Chucunaque
River. The Indians found a small patch of sand along the banks and noticed that it had been all scratched up by Pavo’s or turkey in Spanish. Come to find out, that just like our North American turkeys, the Ocellated Turkey likes to dust itself in sand as well. Well this was like finding a gold mine. If you have ever spent much time in a jungle you know that there are very, very few spots where you will find sand. The Indians made it very clear to me, with help of hand signals that if we were to be in this spot before sun up we would very likely
see them as soon as daybreak comes.
That night found me talking or really more like begging my battle buddy to switch escort duty with me for the following morning so that I could go back out with the hunting party. After half my stock of Pogey Bait (personally bought food items) I finally got someone to pull my duty. At about 0500 hours we started on the half mile trek back to the rivers’ edge. Back to that 10 by 10 foot sand box that I hoped would be the resting place for my first jungle turkey. One of the guides and I sat next to the trunk of a large tree about 15 meters or so from the sandy
area. The other guide was to our right at a distance of no more than 7 or 8 meters. Now remember, to sit on a damp jungle floor is to invite all kinds of bad things to pop up on your skin. But none of that seemed to matter at that point, even though I was suffering a mild case of “prickly heat” malaria. I continued to push past my urge to move or scratch, no matter how uncomfortable it was. Even though I have never hunted the jungle turkey before I knew how weary and movement sensitive our birds were back home. My camouflage consisted of Woodland BDUs (, green jungle boots, boonie cap, and I had covered my exposed face and hands with that “old school” black and green camo in a stick. The Indians wore their typical
dress consisting of a cloth that kind of looked like a burlap sack they had constructed into a primitive pair of shorts.
Maybe 30 or 40 minutes into our hunt out came 3 of the strangest and most colorful birds I have ever seen. They went straight for the sand bar and began to dust themselves. During their morning dusting party I got the blowgun up and had it resting on the top of the metal frame of my rucksack and pointed right at the closest bird which was maybe 8 meters away. When the tip of that stick was pointed where I thought it needed to be, I gave it one heck of a blow and sent the dart on its way. It struck the turkey right at the base of the tail feathers and off he ran. The Indians gave me the sign to wait a short while till the toxic resign had time to do its job. Like many of us know, that is the longest wait that any of us has ever had to endure. After a short conversation with my Squad Leader via my PRC-126, we or should I say they, started the tracking job. I never saw any of the birds fly off, they all just ran away. But one thing I did notice as they left, they all ran down the same trail single file. They did not scatter like a flock back home would do. As the two natives picked up the tracking job, I tried to focus on what they were following. There was no blood trail and all the leaves on the forest floor looked as if they had just been overturned. Now I considered myself a very good tracker and I have
found every animal that I have hit, even after traveling more than a mile before expiring. But I do not think I could have found that turkey without them.
After about 100 meters the Indian in the lead pointed up to a large patch of undergrowth and within that growth stood my bird. I made my intention of wanting to shoot again clear, but was assured that the dart would not make it to its mark through the tree limbs and vines. We just sat back and watched this turkey do the drunken man swagger for about five more minutes, till it finally succumbed to the toxin that was in its veins. I was very anxious to go up and get a closer look at this beautiful bird. I grew up hunting Eastern (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris) and Osceola Turkey and knew that this bird was surely going to be something special. It weighed about 8 pounds and had no beard, but the spurs on it were longer than the live 5.56 round of ammunition we carried. Its head had orange tumor like growths all over it. There were bluish spots on its tail feathers which ended in gold tips. It sort of looked like a peacock!
Figure 3 “Photo” Ocellated Turkey (Meleagris ocellata)
After returning to camp, I showed it off as any hunter would do. For a few of the Soldiers it was the first turkey that they had ever seen. Our radio operator had an old 110 camera, so he took pictures of us laying on the front of a dugout canoe, with the two Indians, I and another with the rest of my platoon. I’m sorry to say that those pictures are packed away in storage back in Colorado. I have been told several times that the Ocellated Turkey does not live that far south into Central America, but I am here to tell you that they did, and would almost guarantee you that they are still there today. If you remember a few years back, scientist also told us that the Coelacanth Fish (Cœlacanthus) died out 80 million years ago, or
until one was caught off the coast of Madagascar in 1938.
I still have yet to harvest a Gould’s turkey (M. g. Mexicana) so my dreams of a World Slam have yet to be fulfilled. But I am a persistent hunter and hope that soon I will fulfill that dream. I will also go back to Panama and hunt the Jungle Pavo again, and hopefully harvest another bird to have a beautiful tail fan made. It would surely make a fantastic conversation piece!
Figure 4 “Photo” The author, Henry Browning.