FOREST GLEN — Tom De La Cruz has a healthy respect for bats.
"I wouldn't want one in my house, but if they're just flying around I'm perfectly happy with them," the 16-year-old Forest Glen resident said.
In fall 2011, De La Cruz, a member of Boy Scout Troop 626 and a senior-to-be at Notre Dame College Prep in Niles, organized a project in which he and his troop set up 13 bat houses in and around Forest Glen.
The effort was part of the Chicago Community Climate Action Toolkit, which used grants from the Field Museum to install rain barrels (which capture rain from gutters and save the liquid for gardens) and plant native gardens on the Northwest Side.
"The most inspiring part of this project is that the scouts and their leaders have taken environmental action into their own hands in a way that can be replicated in other communities," Sauganash Chamber of Commerce executive director Jennifer Herren said.
The project, which took seven weeks to complete and utilized 627 man hours from the 70-Scout troop, earned De La Cruz his Eagle Scout certification. On Saturday, it was named a Glenn A. and Melinda W. Adams National Eagle Scout Service Project of the Year Award winner to "recognize valuable service of an exceptional nature by a Scout."
"The project was an incredible thing to watch the kids get involved with," said George Kilian, the Troop 626 service coordinator and an Edgebrook resident. "It's just one of those things that kids will remember for a lifetime."
De La Cruz last summer said the flying mammals started living in about two-thirds of their new homes, which can hold 200 bats each. Although he did not conduct a specific count, he said the most bats were found in the houses at the North Park Village Nature Center.
He began looking for them Friday in a Cook County Forest Preserve near Edgebrook Golf Course in a pair of their homes, which are about 20 feet off the ground, but was unsuccessful. The bats should be returning from the southern winter homes in the next few weeks.
The population of little brown bats — the most common species in Illinois — has dropped by several million nationwide due to white nose syndrome, a little-understood fungal disease that has wiped out entire colonies.
The bats eat a large number of flying insects, including up to 1,200 mosquitoes per hour, and are a safe alternative to pesticides.
"It gives him a certain sense of accomplishment to know what he did is useful," said De La Cruz's father, Steve, a St. Benedict High School graduate. "Knowing that it's helping and is working keeps him fascinated."
Technically, Tom De La Cruz's mission was completed when the bat houses were installed.
But De La Cruz, who said he will major in education at Northeastern Illinois University with hopes of becoming a fourth-grade teacher, wants to continue searching for bats in the dwellings he helped create.
"I'm still working on it because I want to see that my project actually made an impact," he said. "It's something I still want to do."