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A house with 50 birds in the basement

Marty Dunne has fulfilled his childhood dream of living in a "zoological environment."

This Grand Eclectus parrot lives in Marty and Marcy Dunne's 600-or-so-square-foot bird room.
This Grand Eclectus parrot lives in Marty and Marcy Dunne's 600-or-so-square-foot bird room.Read more

Most people wouldn't appreciate their home being characterized as a zoo. Not so Marty and Marcy Dunne.

Or at least, not so Marty.

Ever since he was a kid, Marty Dunne, 44, has dreamed of living in a "zoological environment," as he puts it. Animals, birds and reptiles are just "his thing."

Although he credits his parents for allowing him his boyhood hamsters, lizards and the occasional dog, he praises his wife of 18 years, Marcy (a woman of incredible humor), for indulging his Dr. Doolittle-ness.

"True, I am a saint," says Marcy, as evidence of it wafts up in chirps and peeps and caw-caws from the basement. Marty keeps 50 birds down there. Big and small exotics, primarily from Australia. Flying freely, and mating.

There's also a 25-pound African sulcata tortoise named Rochelle, guinea pigs named Maeve and Lola, and a rabbit named Gwen. They are free to roam, as well.

And finally, there are the swimmers - the giant catfish, crayfish, and an impressive assortment of turtles (sliders, softshell and snapper) all congregating nicely inside a 120-gallon fish tank that's set into a wall and dramatically lit.

The Dunnes built themselves a genuine aviary (or bird room, the proper term among birders) in the bowels of their home. And save for the rising song, there is no evidence (no foul odors, no escaped birdseed, no drifting feathers) of the eccentricity below - or the grandeur.

Theirs is a rambling, 100-year-old Prairie-influenced American Foursquare near downtown La Grange, Ill. Marty grew up here with six siblings. With three floors, two staircases, and rooms for sitting that go unnamed, it's one of those big (about 6,000 square feet), lovable homes.

And it does a natty job of containing the Dunne family zoo, which besides the menagerie of pets includes four children (ages 14, 12, 9 and 7) and their army of friends.

After buying the house from Marty's parents in the late 1990s, the Dunnes spent the next few years fixing this and that.

Then in 2007, they began a yearlong gutting/renovation began that included moving and remodeling the kitchen, turning seven bedrooms into a more livable five, and tearing down the old garage and attaching a new one with a rec room over it.

Not to be forgotten, though, was the feather-and-fur factor.

Four chipper miniature dachshunds are dashing about the clutterless family room. (Marcy's penchant for order is no secret.) Lizards Hector and Fluffy perch above the fray in their cage.

"Marcy loves animals," Marty, executive vice president of sales at a teleconferencing-services firm, says, not exactly straight-faced. "But her whole deal is this: She said, 'As long as it's organized and I don't have to live in feces, then you can do this.' "

Do the bird thing. Do the lizard thing, the fish thing, the turtle thing, the dog thing.

Pre-renovation, Marty's birds (two large cockatoos) lived upstairs in the main part of the house in a cage.

"The birds were awful with the kids. It was awful," says Marcy.

And then four years ago, with the renovation still a twinkle in their eyes, the Dunnes got the idea of moving the birds downstairs in a giant cage and devoting a small portion of the basement to them.

That was the turning point for her, for her acceptance of the bird thing, Marcy says. Out of sight, out of the main part of the house, "everything was great. I could care [less] if there were 100 down there."

With Marcy's blessing, Marty's collection of birds grew. So did the amount of basement space devoted to it, and its fancifulness.

Marty designed the 600-or-so-square-foot bird room, which was built by Brookfield, Ill.-based contractor Andrzej "Andy" Dluski. Think the bird house at the zoo.

Down the basement stairs and face-to-face with a glass-walled room, visitors can pull up a chair and be viewers. Or they can enter the room and become part of the action.

This is a free-flight bird room, occupying half the basement proper. Amid the faux plants and real bird houses (some embedded in the walls, all to encourage breeding) are 50 wildly colorful, exotic birds, plus the guinea pigs and tortoise.

Among the winged ones: princess parrots, rosella parrots, eclectus, owl finches, whydah finches, English budgies, cockatiel and canary. All are named, generally for people the Dunnes know. And all appear to be quite comfy.

There is a woodsy floor down here - wood chips over the standard basement concrete floor. There are special lights on timers to mimic daylight, some with heating elements that bring the temperature to 75 to 80 degrees.

There is a special air-filtration system and an acoustic-tile ceiling. There is a short stone wall that wends its way through the bird room.

And there is smarts - Marty included a sink, a wet/dry vac, and mainly plastic plants (save for the real bamboo and real twigs/branches gathered from his backyard), purchased at Michaels craft stores.

Ease is the name of his game. "I strategically put all the plastic plants underneath where they will drop [poop]" Marty says. "And then I just clean the plastic plants."

He pulls out the plants and hoses them down in the utility sink every three weeks. Daily, he runs the wet/dry vac. "It's very low-maintenance."

Building the bird room took about three months and cost $35,000 to $40,000 - about $20,000 in construction, plus the accessories, the river fish tank, and the cost of the birds, fish and other animals and reptiles.

"I like to go down here at night," Marty Dunne says. "I'll grab a glass of wine and just sit down here. . . . It's my quiet time."