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(Enlarge) Catonsville has become a bat-friendlier community after Jake Jacob hung bat houses throughout the area as part of his Eagle Scout project. (Photo by Kitty R Charlton)

When Jake Jacob started thinking about potential Eagle Scout projects, fighting the depletion of bat populations in the northeast United States did not immediately spring to mind.

"Never," said the recent Catonsville High School graduate.

But that is the project he ended up choosing.

Now his homemade bat houses -- which provide summer habitats for various bat species, among them Indiana bats that are on the endangered species list -- hang in trees in yards in Catonsville, on the No. 8 Trolley Trail, as far north as Pennsylvania and as far south as Virginia and West Virginia.

There's also a bunch in Carroll County, where Pennsylvania bats migrate in the summer to roost, he said.

All together, 27 bat houses built by Jacob can be found hanging from trees and poles in the region, he said.

A resident of Hilton Avenue, Jacob said he spent more than 60 hours on the project, which must benefit the community. The large group of friends and family members he recruited to help contributed an additional 115 hours, he said.

After his early, unsuccessful search for a suitable project, Jacob said he contacted David Brinker, a family friend who is an ecologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, for an idea.

Brinker suggested something to help bats, which are hugely beneficial to the state, and region's, ecosystem.

Bats help humans by eating annoying and destructive insects such as mosquitoes, crop-killing beetles and other pests. They could also use some help from humans.

According to Dan Feller, who studies the small mammals as a western region biologist with the state DNR, Maryland's bat population -- which has been thriving in recent years -- is on the verge of being attacked.

Since 2006, more than a half million bats have been killed in nine states -- including Maryland's neighbors, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, -- by a previously unknown fungus that causes the creatures to develop what has become known as "white nose syndrome," Feller said.

The fungus causes bats to grow a "strange white substance" on their muzzles, Feller said.

The fungus, which seems to prefer the colder temperatures found in caves where bats hibernate during the winter, acts as an irritant that wakes the bats too frequently during their hibernation, Feller said.

Frequently waking up causes the hibernating bats to burn their winter fat stores too quickly, and they subsequently starve to death, Feller said.

Various states, including Maryland, as well as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, are investigating the fungus, though much is still unknown, Feller said.

The fungus does not affect humans, though it is thought that cave explorers helped spread the fungus between states on their caving gear, Feller said.

The fungus has not been found in Maryland yet, but Feller said it's only a matter of time before it reaches the state.

"It's within 40 miles of Maryland now, and that's well within the flight distance of bats," he said.

With so much going against the area's bats, helping to restore habitat for them -- as Jacob's project does -- is good news for the bats and the humans who count on the bats to keep mosquito populations in check, Feller said.

Many species of bats, including the endangered Indiana bats, migrate to areas of Maryland for their summer roosting, which is usually done inside dead trees or inside peeling bark, Feller said.

"Unfortunately, there has been a great deal of forest loss in Maryland over the years," he said.

With dead trees less prevalent in the state than they once were, manmade bat houses are a great substitute, Feller said, adding he has one in his own yard in Garrett County.

Jacob built the bat houses of wood, painted them black and placed them in trees or on tall poles between 10 and 14 feet off the ground -- "basically to mimic a dead tree," Jacob said.

"It's something that we really needed around here," he said.

Jacob estimated each house could hold about 10 bats, though Feller said bats can "really cram into" bat houses, so there could be more.

The project earned Jacob a letter of praise from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources in addition to helping him reach Eagle Scout status.

The achievement, which he received in May, made him feel relieved, as well as proud, he said.

"It does feel really nice to have it off my shoulders now. It's definitely a great feeling to be able to tell someone you're an Eagle Scout," he said.

"It's one of the greatest accomplishments someone can get."

Troop 456, which Jacob has been a member of for about 10 years, has produced 87 Eagle Scouts since 1961, and more Scouts are expected to earn the rank in coming months, according to the troop's Web site.

The 2009 list also includes Robert Hewins and Joseph Barrick.

This fall, Jacob will leave home to attend West Virginia University, where he plans to study engineering, he said.

But he'll be back in Catonsville in the summer, he said -- and thanks to his Eagle Scout project, so might a bunch of hungry bats.

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