Ring the doorbell at Suzanne and Michael Woodford's Mesa house and the faint sound of chirping can be heard from the front step before the door is even opened.
But it's not a mechanical chime or sound effect intended to mimic nature in the center of a metropolis. The harmonies are organically generated by three-dozen or so finches that call a two-story aviary in the entryway of the Woodford's house home.
Stairs leading to the second floor wrap around the bird residence, which measures 8 feet by 4 feet and stands about 20 feet high.
"It's a little community. Some are aggressive, some are passive and some are gossips. They want to go around and tell everyone everything," Suzanne said of her vocal feathered roommates.
Perches and 10 nests and wooden houses provide the lodging in this village. Water and food trays serve as the restaurants and bars. Residents represent a number of finch species including Java Rice, Zebra, Cut-throat — named for the distinctive red band across males' necks — and Cordon Bleu, which are Suzanne's favorite.
The space is plumbed to accommodate a faucet with running water. The rock-covered bottom is open to natural earth beneath the house. Artificial trees provide additional lounging areas.
"We planted real plants (at first), but the birds ate them," Suzanne said.
The aviary is cleaned weekly but the Woodfords do a deep clean every couple of months and remove and replace the rocks and gravel on the floor, replace the perches, nests and any artificial plants that need to go. The process takes two hours with the birds watching from above.
“They chatter at us and sit high on the top perches,” Suzanne said.
The Woodfords have always been animal lovers. They own Dobson Montessori School, a K-12 campus in Mesa, where Suzanne is a high school teacher. At the school, nature is a big part of the curriculum. Goats, chickens, tortoises and chinchillas are housed there. At home, the Woodfords have a cat and a Border Collie named Tia.
So it's not so unusual that a bird sanctuary was part of their home design plan from day one.
Some women go shopping and come back with a new dress or handbag. Suzanne took a shopping trip to an auction. Her big get: an empty lot adjacent to Dobson Ranch Golf Course.
For years, the Woodfords collected house photos and magazine pages that depicted what they liked and kept those in a folder as inspiration for the day when they could build their own home from the ground up. The opportunity arose with the purchase of the lot.
"We've seen photographs with an aviary in a garden setting. We wanted one indoors due to the heat. That idea was in the folder," Suzanne said. "Some have an atrium with plants. We thought, why not add some finches?"
The Woodfords brought their folder of ideas to Tempe architect Ernie Nichols, who designed the home and drew the plans that allowed for the two-story aviary at the entryway.
As soon as they moved in, eight finches did too. Over the years, the population has ballooned to somewhere between 35 to 40.
"Apparently, they like it here," Suzanne said.
The couple had always wanted an adobe home and worked with the city to approve its construction, making theirs the only two-story adobe home to be permitted in Mesa, Suzanne said. The three-bedroom, two-bathroom, 2,400-square-foot house features mud blocks that are two-feet thick. The home was completed in 1983.
Designed to be passive solar, the adobe walls make for amazing insulation and also convection cooling when strategically placed windows are open, capturing and creating a cooling breeze off the golf course and pushing warm air up through high windows on the opposite wall in the north-south facing house.
The edging also shades the tile in the living room to keep the sun off the tile and prevent additional warmth from heating the house in the summer. In the winter, the sun comes in, warms the tile and radiates heat into the home.
At the top of the stairs, guests get a view of the living room, entry and kitchen. The home office is on one side and a small reading room is on the other near the high end of the aviary, offering a relaxing flight show and melodic ambiance for readers.
"Most of them sit in pairs. They're pretty loyal," Suzanne said.
In addition to Dobson Montessori, the Woodfords own One Oh One Gallery in Mesa and Suzanne runs 2nd Friday Night Out in downtown Mesa. Suzanne's career is in education while Michael has a background in psychiatric counseling.
They met while attending different high schools — Michael at Camelback High School and Suzanne at Arcadia High School. They married 51 years ago while Michael was in the Army.
And their chatty roommates can’t resist being busy bodies. When the Woodfords entertain guests and the birds hear everyone talking, they want to do talk, too. And boy do they ever.
However, they discovered a way to control this with a simple flick of a switch that controls an overhead chandelier near the aviary.
"We found that when we turn the light off, they go to sleep. So, you can turn them on and off by turning the light on and off," Suzanne said.
Whether they are buzzing with excitement or curiously sedate, the birds and their two-story abode always makes an impression on first-time visitors.
"People are always really surprised. Door-to-door salespeople or when a new person comes to the house, they are always a little aghast," Suzanne said. "They look up and realize there are birds and they go, 'Oh my goodness!'"
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