March 15, 2010

Expert to shed light on bats

DEBORAH SAYER

— By

Staff Writer

The honorary title of Batman hasn't yielded Tom Cowland the expected excitement afforded to a caped crusader.

Cowland doesn't take to the streets at night sporting a cape and cowl. He isn't equipped with high-tech gadgetry. And he doesn't chase villains through the streets in a fully armored vehicle.

Instead, the retired Marshwood High School biology teacher gives educational talks about bats. On Aug. 28, he'll give a presentation at the Wells Reserve. It's designed to dispel myths about bats and learn about their role in the environment.

Cowland's studies focus on non-migrating species of bats that are indigenous to the New England area and hibernate during the winter months. His fascination with bats began as a college student at the University of Maine at Farmington when he worked with Professor Robert Martin of New Sharon.

Now retired, Martin detailed his extensive study on bats to students with such zeal that it spurred Cowland's desire to become a teacher and piqued his own interest in bats.

It's a subject Cowland has pursued in his spare time ever since, traveling across the country and around the world with Martin to learn more.

''I graduated from college at 2 p.m., and by 4 p.m. that day (Martin and I) were on the road to attend a bat symposium at Texas A&M (University). I was 22 years old, and it was a month-long intensive in Mexico, (that included) sightseeing and exploring caves,'' Cowland said.

Fifteen years later, he said he invited Martin to attend a bat conference with him in Aberdeen, Scotland.

Cowland said he worked the study of bats into environmental classes at Marshwood High School in Eliot.

During his 34-year tenure in the Maine School Administrative District 35 (serving the towns of Eliot and South Berwick), Cowland peppered his classes with bat facts. His classroom was even dubbed, ''The Bat Cave.''

He also was a 20-year consultant for B.A.T.S. in Maine (Bats Are a Threatened Species).

Cowland's focus now is to advocate for bats to ''show the good that they do and their importance in the ecology.''

He said that over the centuries, bats have gotten a bad rap and by being stereotyped as rabid with a penchant for flying into people's hair. In fact, less than half of one percent of the overall bat population is rabid, Cowland said. Local species, which are insectivores, are beneficial in keeping insect populations down, he said.

Cowland said a new disease affecting bats, white nose syndrome, recently has been responsible for the deaths of thousands of bats in areas of New York and Vermont.

''It's wiping out huge percentages of bat populations, which could adversely affect us,'' said Cowland.

Cowland's talks include interesting tidbits on bats, their use of echolocation, or sonar, to navigate night skies; how they feed on insects; and ways to attract them to the area.

His slide presentation will conclude with a question-and-answer period and an opportunity for audience members to share any experiences they've had with bats.

''It's always interesting. You never know what you're going to run into. Every audience is different, and many of them have bat stories to tell,'' he said.

And though Cowland is a bat aficionado, he's not an animal control officer.

''I do not make house calls,'' said Cowland, who frequently gets telephone requests to come and remove wayward bats from homes.

His talks do include tips on safe ways to remove bats from homes.

''They don't want to be in there any more than you want them to be in there,'' he said.

Staff Writer Deborah Sayer can be contacted at 282-8228 or at:

dsayer@pressherald.com

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