Here's a thought that could weird you out: As soon as the weather warms up, there will be millions of tiny spiders and other creepy little bugs drifting in the air above your head.
If that's not spooky enough, the flying predators keeping this huge "biomass cloud" under control seem to be dying out and no one knows why. That's the ominous warning in the Connecticut Audubon Society's "State of the Birds" report for 2013.
We're talking about birds you probably never heard of or thought much about, like the Common Nighthawk and the Eastern Wood Peewee. They are members of a whole class of birds called "aerial insectivores" that feed on the spiders, beetles, flies, mosquitoes, moths and mites that float through the air.
"There seems to be a decline [in aerial insectivores] from the southeast up to the northeast," says Milan Bull, director of science and conservation for this state's Audubon Society chapter. "Connecticut is sort of in the middle of it."
Keep in mind that this new concern for insect-eating birds is coming at a time when there has been an enormous die-off of bats, which consume vast quantities of flying bugs. According to Bull, "We've probably lost 90 percent of our bat species in Connecticut in the last three or four years" due to the deadly spread of a disease known as white-nose fungus.
Science has known for decades that all sorts of bugs are drifting and migrating in strange ways through the skies, but it wasn't until recently that researchers began to fully grasp how many insects are up there.
Sophisticated radar systems so delicate that they can count the number of raindrops in a given area turned out to also reveal what some experts are now calling "aerial plankton." (Marine plankton are those masses of miniscule sea creatures that form the base of the food chain in our oceans, sustaining everything from sardines to blue whales.)
"They found far more insects than we originally thought," Bull explains.
Some researchers have estimated that one square mile of sky, from 20 feet above the ground up to 500 feet, may contain as many as 32 million arthropods (little spiders and mites). The spiders use their webs to "balloon" through the sky and scientists have evidence that many insects migrate hundreds of miles to different breeding and feeding sites, just like birds.
It's on this "biomass" that insect-eating birds and bats make their living, only incidentally doing us the favor of getting rid of huge numbers of biting and stinging nasties.
The trouble is that many of those beautiful aerial acrobats are starting to vanish and the causes of their dramatic decline are a mystery.
For some birds, it could be urban development and the return of forest land in places like Connecticut have reduced the number of potential nesting sites. For others, it could be acid rain leaching the calcium from the soil and the bird's food chain, leaving them without a key ingredient for strong egg shells and bones.
Our use of pesticides on crops and lawns could be another villain, killing off too many of the bugs these sky predators depend on for food.
"It's a whole new science," says Bull, and researchers are only just beginning to understand how all this "aeroecology" fits together
For instance, it seems that some bugs are better for insect-eating birds like chimney swifts and tree swallows than other bugs.
"We think beetles are far more nutritious than flies," Bull points out. If the number of good-and-yummy beetles is down and these birds are forced to just eat flies, he says it could be hurting their health. Sort of like going into a supermarket and only being able to buy fast food.
One of our little insect-devouring birds that appears to be in serious trouble is the chimney swift. It's so called because this little brown creature loves to nest in old-fashioned, open-flue brick chimneys. Originally, these guys used hollowed-out old-growth tree trunks but switched to chimneys as the trees were cut down and the houses went up.
There are an estimated 15 million chimney swifts east of the Rocky Mountains, which sounds like a lot but may be half the number there were 40 years ago. If you bird geeks out there are paying attention to your local chimney swifts, you may not have noticed any drop in their Connecticut numbers, but the bird's population in Canada has plunged by close to 90 percent.
Connecticut bird scientists from the University of Connecticut and the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection thought they had a great idea about helping the chimney swifts. If new houses and capped chimneys were reducing the number of old-style chimneys the birds liked, these friendly scientists would build brand new old-style chimneys for them to nest in.
Nice idea, but the birds totally ignored the specially constructed chimneys.