Even for a non-existent animal, the carabunco (sometimes written “carabunclo”) is remarkably shy and shadowy. It seems to be a nocturnal bird or small lizard-like creature whose major physical characteristic is a bright light in the middle of its forehead. It has most often been seen in Sonora, in the desert area between the Altar Valley and the Pinacate mountains. Some say it frequents spots where there is buried treasure.
José Teherán C., in his book Bestias y Seres Imaginarios Sonorenses (1991, Hermosillo: Artes Gráficas y Editoriales Yescas), describes the carbunclo as a low-flying nocturnal bird. Its flight pattern is straight and silent, and it prefers lonely roads and sandy river banks. It has the regulation light in the middle of its forehead, but it also carries with it a “halo of death” which strikes fear into the hearts of those who see it. (This last detail is unique in my experience to Teherán’s description; he seems to prefer his monsters to be terrifying.)
I have personally heard only one story about a possible carabunco sighting. In the late 1930s, the late Daniel Matson was a Franciscan Missionary on what was then the Papago Indian Reservation, visiting remote villages, where he would say Mass and then spend a night or two. He told me that one night at Hickiwan, on the far northwest corner of the Reservation, he saw what looked like automobile headlights approaching far off through the desert. There was no engine noise, and after a while the lights disappeared. His O’odham hosts did not put a name to the phenomenon, but said that they would sometimes see it. Could this be a sighting of what other cultures might call a carabunco? Who knows? I can tell you that mysterious lights in the desert figure large in our region’s repertory of folk beliefs and legends.
And that’s all I’ve been able to find out about this elusive beast. Although its name sounds European, I have been able to find no specific Old World analogues to our carabunco. There was, however a legend that lasted from ancient Greek to modern times that a stone called a carbuncle grew under the horn of a unicorn and could be used in the healing of wounds. And carbunclo is the Spanish word for “ruby.” None of this, of course, gets us very far towards an understanding of our Sonoran carabunco.
However, bird or lizard, terrifying visitor or treasure guardian, it is very much alive in the minds of many Sonorans.