When you descend into the Dunne family basement in La Grange you might be forgiven for thinking you were suddenly transported to Brookfield Zoo.
Some families use their basements for game rooms or storage space, and some families keep a bird or two in a cage. But at the Dunne residence, the basement itself is a birdcage—a sprawling exhibit with nearly 100 avian residents, filled with grass and countless birdhouses and separated from a sitting room by glass viewing panels.
Visitors can spot parrots, cockatiels, budgies, finches, doves, homing pigeons, canaries, peacocks, finches and even a few critters without wings: hairless guinea pigs, four tortoises and an angora/lionhead rabbit. Then there are the three jewels: the massive green macaw Sarge, the clever talking African Gray Buddy (“hey, Buddy!” he chants) and the bright-red Eclectus parrot Helen.
Why does the Dunne family’s basement look like a tropical jungle?
“Well,” Marty Dunne explained, “I don’t play golf.”
Dunne loves birds but not dogs. His wife Marcy loves dogs but not birds. The parents of four found a compromise: The family owns four dachshunds, and since 2005 their basement has been home to what appears to be the extended cast of Rio.
The kids love it, especially when they get to show it off to visitors, but it’s Marty’s project through and through. The aviary, which started off as a chicken-wire fence in a corner of the basement, expands every year with new species and new baby chicks. Dunne estimates that he spends about 40 minutes a day tending to his flock and couldn’t be happier doing so.
“I’ve always wanted to see how they would cohabitate, always been really fascinated with a zoo exhibit,” Dunne said. “So trying multiple species together and giving them room to be interesting is really fun for me.
“The thing I like about birds is that they’re the animal that are most like people. They have really complex personalities. And they’re very loyal. … If they lose a mate, then I’ve seen birds in a short time, without being sick, just stop eating and die. Their grief is really intense. And if they’re in a good mood, they’re so funny.”
He is continually experimenting and learning new things from his animals. Two small birds of different species formed a tremendous friendship and live as a bonded pair. Traditional wisdom says not to cohabitate large and small birds, but Sarge the macaw has no trouble with his finch roommates. (On the flip side, introducing Canadian ground squirrels went wrong when the squirrels started eating birds.)
“I love that I give birds the opportunity to be birds,” said Dunne. “Most people have caged birds that don’t know how to fly. … After a while, a caged bird who never has an opportunity to fly forgets how. I think it’s really important for birds to fly."
Helen and Buddy also have perches in the family living room, splitting their time. And during the warm months, some of the birds are moved to an outdoor aviary just south of the house. There’s a home for the tortoises there as well.
Marty shares his love-labor and bird knowledge with the community as well. He has hosted fourth- and fifth-grade class field trips from St. Xavier and Cossitt, showing off his pets for eager kids. His home has hosted parties of up to 200 people, and the menagerie is always a huge hit.
It may be about to become a bigger one. Dunne is planning a $10,000-$15,000 renovation of the basement, redoing the lighting to be more like a zoo exhibit, redoing the walls (the turtles like to scratch them) and creating a sitting alcove that is more surrounded by the aviary. Other additions might include a bar, music improvements and a new aquarium.
“People think I’m crazy,” Dunne said. “And it’s true that I am.
“But I think people also have a lot of appreciation for someone has a lot of passion about anything that they do. And so to a large extent, being down here, this is where I express a lot of my passions: animals, their care and their happiness."
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