Thom Smith | NatureWatch: When should you take a nest down?

Q: We have three questions, two from our 7- and 4-year-old boys who spend a lot of time in the outdoors learning all they can about nature. And one from their parents that I will begin with:

For the first time, we have a family of robins sharing our back deck, which has been a thrill for all of us. The question is should we leave the nest for another brood or even another family or take it down? It was constructed in the crotch of the rain gutter downspout just beneath the eves where we were able to watch the proceedings from construction to fledgling of the young.

The second is from our boys Gabo and Paddy and is about the orange salamanders we encountered recently in the woods after a soaking rain and everything was still wet. One is an alumnus and the other a current student at Mass Audubon's Arcadia Nursery School in Easthampton, where they learned that these charming animals are amphibians and are called the red efts, while their dad and I called them newts or salamanders. Can you explain the difference and clear up our confusion?

— Gabo, Paddy, Patrick and Lisa, Holyoke

A: The first is easy. To remove a used nest, it is best done wearing a dust mask and latex gloves for disposal. Although robins may sometimes rebuild on top of a used nest, think of it as a cradle and not a home. A pair may raise two or sometimes as many as three families nearby, during a Connecticut Valley season, but often each with a new, clean "cradle." Pieces of used nests may also be recycled by the parents, or even other birds. Keep in mind that even inconveniently placed active nests, must be left alone. The federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 makes it illegal to destroy nests with birds or eggs in them. Only after the birds have fledged can the nest be removed.

One interesting thing both efts or juvenile spotted newts share with American robins is their orange color, being described as red. Robin red-breast, and Red eft.

My best remembered encounter with red efts was as a teenager. I was surprised by these dull orange amphibians lazily crossing my path in a light rain at Pleasant Valley Sanctuary in Lenox, also a Massachusetts Audubon property. As I recall, it had been a dry spring and these colorful woodland guests seemed to be everywhere, delighted (if possible) with the rain.

The life of this species is much more complex than that of the robin. And it is easier for me to explain if I begin with the adults, that have by now finished mating and laying three or four hundred eggs singly on underwater plants. This often takes over a week, and when they hatch in about a month, the larva rest for a while, and then become active and by late summer change from underwater denizens breathing with gills to land dwellers by growing lungs and begin leaving the water to spend several years on land. When you find one, watch it for a while as it wanders about. Its orange color warns predators that it is toxic, and few other creatures will disturb it. Good for them, as they will spend up to five years wandering about the woods, before moving back to a life in water. They will retain their lungs, but otherwise spend the rest of their lives mostly in water. As adults, they reach about four inches in length, olive green above and yellow below. Look closely and you will notice tiny red dots within a pack of circles sprinkled about. There are six species of newts in North America, and all are salamanders. Essentially, all newts are salamanders, but not all salamanders are newts. adult newts are semi-aquatic to aquatic life, while adult salamanders mostly live a terrestrial life except for when they're breeding and laying eggs. Salamanders typically have longer and more rounded tails with well-developed toes for digging in soil, while. most newts have webbed feet and a paddle-like tail, which make it easier to live in the water.

And although salamanders resemble lizards, they lack ear openings, claws and have dry, scaly skin.

One final note, red efts are wanderers and not suitable for captivity. If you want to study them, a specimen may be kept in a terrarium for a week, if returned to the same placed taken the week before. An adult red eft or red-spotted newt would make a far better aquarium "pet." Check first on their care.

Thom Smith welcomes readers' questions and comments. Email him at or write him care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 S. Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201.


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