Like the bright-eyed, temperamental female for whom she is named, Scarlett has had problems with the opposite sex. One suitor, Rhett, was poisoned. Misha, Blue Meanie and Percy flew the coop after a few good meals. Then last week, after months of high flying courtship, her latest beau, Ashley, was shot.
"I'm sure it's frustrating for Scarlett," says John Barber, a data processing manager and part-time manservant to the 4-year-old peregrine falcon that nests on the 33rd floor of Baltimore's tallest building.
Ashley was found hiking down a suburban street in West Baltimore last week, an embarrassing state for a bird capable of snatching pigeons from the sky at 170 miles per hour. A wing bone was broken, apparently from a shotgun wound.
The wound does not endanger the 2-year-old falcon's life, but it does put in doubt his ability to survive independently and mate successfully with Scarlett. The wingbone is crucial for steering and the female demands a high flying courtship.
Ashley was the fifth male introduced to Scarlett by the Peregrine Falcon Fund, a nonprofit group that has been trying to reestablish falcons in the east since 1975. The birds began disappearing in the late 1940s, victims of pesticides. By 1970 they were extinct east of the Mississippi.
In the last eight years more than 350 captive-bred falcons have been released into wild lands beside the Atlantic. Scarlett was set loose on an island on Maryland's Eastern Shore in 1978. Two days later, the black-eyed predator spurned her island paradise and moved to the city.
"Peregrines are attracted by high cliffs. She headed for the highest thing she could find," says Barber, who works for the United States Fidelity and Guaranty Co., a dozen floors below the ledge where Scarlett nests. "Skyscrapers to them are nothing more than cliffs. And with pigeon populations in cities, they have an inexhaustible food source."
Barber has a degree in zoology. Ironically he gave up a wildlife job at the Smithsonian in Washington to work with computers at USF&G. Having Scarlett as a tenant, he admits, made both the job and the city more attractive.
"Baltimore's got a peregrine falcon in it," says the 29-year-old Barber, who has a slow, precise manner of speaking. "As far as I'm concerned, that's all it needs."
Scarlett has raised 16 young, all of them planted by Peregrine Fund biologists in her nest. The falcons have become something of an obsession in this city of seagulls, pigeons and overgrown Orioles.
Just as the mating of the giant pandas has captivated Washington, so has Scarlett's hapless romance been followed in Baltimore like some tragic soap opera. Headlines beg the question, When Will Scarlett Wed?
In Rhett, Scarlett seemed to have met an ideal mate. Though he came on the scene in 1980, too late for mating season, Rhett stuck around to help Scarlett raise four adopted young. Before the next mating season arrived, Rhett ate a pigeon that had eaten strychnine-laced grain set out by dock workers to kill rats.
Ashley and Scarlett revived romantic hopes. The two had begun to bow and call to each other. They had even made a few precourtship flights together. Barber and the rest of Baltimore's bird watchers were waiting for spring like proud parents.
So last week's shooting was particularly upsetting. Veterinarians at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in northeastern Maryland, where Ashley is recuperating, say it will probably be at least a month before they know if Ashley will be ready for his spring duties.
In the meantime, Scarlett searches the sky above Baltimore's harbor for pigeons and, presumably Ashley, while her fans watch her through a one-way window on the 33rd floor of this 37-story building.
"She has become accustomed to hearing typewriters and telephones," says Barber. "Oh yes, even television cameras."