The birdbath that gets the most action is accidental. It’s just a big plastic saucer forgotten on the driveway, but found and filled by summer storms. The dog loves it, the red wasps love it, as do robins, doves, and cardinals: birds comfortable on the ground. Between it and me are an old lawn chair and a screened door that act as a birdblind. Birds at the saucer don’t see me here on the porch, but I see them fine. They drink alone, they drink together. When they bathe, they splash water on thirsty concrete and then butterflies aim for the dark, glittering stains. 

There has been no rain for twelve days in a row. Before dawn, I walked the yard in flipflops to stare at the sky—no clouds—and although the grass is overlong, my feet stayed dry. When I came inside for tea, still thinking about stars, I learned that overnight we’d set a new record for deadliest mass-shooting in U.S. history. More than the usual number of dead and wounded.

I filled the driveway saucer after I took our boy to school. Not knowing what else to do, I sat to watch birds who did. It’s fall migration, and birds need what I’ve got: seeds in the feeder, seeds in the wildflower patch; and for birds who eat fruit or insects, the hackberry tree in our little Nashville yard has both. Each fall, yellow-green warblers strip it of tiny psyllids and wooly aphids, while robins gorge on berries. And all birds need water, placed high and low. I always wonder what they make of Metro fluoride and chlorine. Can they taste them? Do they wish I’d draw water from the rain barrel instead?

A robin flew down pretty quick and perched on the edge. He froze, watchful. His white-rimmed eye did not see me in the porch. He dipped his head, scooped some water, and lifted his beak to let gravity slide the sip to his gullet. I could see his throat quiver as the muscles worked. No, quiver is too delicate a word. I mean more of a judder, like when my husband turns the hose bibb not quite far enough to the left (“left-y loose-y”) and the supply pipe judders in the basement so hard it shakes the kitchen floor. The robin’s throat looked like this sounds, like it had to hammer that drink down. So much work for a bit of water, but it’s how most birds have to do it.

The robin dipped, raised, dipped, raised, again and again. When his beak was in the water, ripples radiated to the edge of the plastic. When his beak was in the air, the surface of the saucer had already stilled. It was as if there was room only for one set of ripples at a time: either the water or the throat. I kept watching both—the taking of turns, the shimmers of wet, the shivers of feather—when would the pattern break? I was afraid to move or blink. I was afraid he would stop drinking, and I was afraid he would never stop drinking. And when at last he fluttered up to the hackberry tree in his own good time, I found that I was crying.

There is room for a thing to be astonishing and mundane at the same time. An accidental birdbath. Ripples. A sunlit drop at the tip of a beak. The matching grays of a robin’s wing and old concrete. The next peacetime massacre with weapons of war, and the next, and the next, and the next. Watching a robin drink what it is offered.


Joanna Brichetto is a naturalist in Nashville, the hackberry-tree capital of the world. Her essays have appeared in Fourth Genre, Hippocampus, The Hopper, Flyway, The Common, City Creatures, The Fourth River and other journals. She writes about everyday natural wonders amid everyday habitat loss at Look Around: Nearby Nature and @Jo_Brichetto on Instagram. Her current project is an almanac-memoir called Paradise in a Parking Lot.

Photo by Mike McKniff