Alec Finlay: Bird boxes as mirco-tonal public art

We caught up with our artist in residence, Alec Finlay to find out more about his poem bird boxes for care homes and how they help us to notice and care for nature in the places we walk.

Photo credit: Sam McDiarmid, poem bird box
Photo credit: Sam McDiarmid, poem bird box
Photo credit: Sam McDiarmid, poem bird box
Photo credit: Sam McDiarmid, poem bird box
Photo credit: Sam McDiarmid, poem bird box

When did you start making poem bird boxes and where did this idea come from?

I made my first nest-boxes many years ago, for a public park in Dysart – you can still see the remnants of some 15 years later – and then did a set in Yorkshire Sculpture Park. 

I like them as ‘poem-objects’, meaning an ordinary thing that can carry a poem. I suppose that they say we could live with poetry, rather than keep it closed away in books. More recently, working with Paths for All, I’ve also made walking sticks with poems, in the same spirit. It only requires a small budget to enhance daily life in this way.

I like nest-boxes as a form of public art – which is usually large and made of metal or marble – as they are modest – what I call ‘micro-tonal’ – meaning that you can have many of them within a landscape, like small points of attention.

The boxes draw attention to trees and views, and you can use them to compose walks through a landscape, inviting people to walk further or discover small nooks and glades. 

In practical terms they are vandal proof, aside from squirrels! I think of them as living sculptures. I’ve also made beehives with poems, which look very beautiful. There’s something about the form of animal and bird nests, and the forms we create for them, that we’re all drawn to. These forms have the function of shelter, which is comforting.

Birds are often viewed as messengers alerting other animals to predators, such as humans. What message do we send back to birds by creating nest boxes for them?

I think that bird boxes remind us of our own needs, for a safe dwelling, a nest. And they signal our responsibility – the fact that with a small effort of love and kindness we can offer the vulnerable support. Obviously, the boxes help birds, but perhaps it’s just as important that they remind us – and governments – what we could do for one another by providing shelter, warmth, and protection.

What response have you had from care home staff and residents in Perth and Kinross about designing and installing bird boxes?

One care home had an unveiling for their nest-box artwork, which looked fun. They were very excited when it was occupied – that’s better than a good review, having your work become a home.

My collaborator Sam McDiarmid went around the homes photographing all the boxes. I think of the photos as a second work of art, as they draw attention to an environment and create a scene, like a stage set, where the nesting birds are a small drama of everyday life.

I’ve been reminded by Paths for All, how important gardens are for care homes, as well as for those with limited walking. This has become true for me now, having Long Covid, as my world is 200m wide or long, so everything that I can access which is natural and alive within that small space means much more to me.

Many of the care home gardens are beside streets and enjoyed by passers-by. The green views and visits from birds are also enjoyed by residents who can’t leave their rooms. Ask anyone with chronic illness and a bird passing by is a welcome event. 

That experience reminds me of two of my favourite poets, William Soutar and Shiki (a Japanese haiku poet), who were both disabled, and who became what I call ‘window poets’, enjoying nature from their beds, and writing poems describing that immediate micro-ecology.

What role do birds play in your poetry and thinking?

They sing and I listen! 

It’s not that I am interested in birds, as such, more that I like to make art that responds to habitats, as much as civic settings, or help to create parks and gardens into richer habitats. 

I am making a viewing shelter in Amble for a bird trail, which is in the form of a fulmar’s egg. Again, nature is rich with forms that we are drawn to.

Do you have any favourite birds or a totem bird?

I do have deep fond memories of the peewits and skylarks on the moors where I grew up, near Biggar, and the grouse – the way they would fly low and alarmed, just above the heather. 

In recent years I’ve worked with Chris Watson on a project recording animals and birds in the Cairngorms, and there it was as much the idea of the birds that we could have heard – blackcock, eagle, ptarmigan, as well as those we did hear, like golden plover, raven, and song-thrush. Art can make us aware of the hidden, revealing what we don’t see, and helping us to care for and improve ecology.

Do you have any comments on COP26 in Glasgow and global leaders' response to the importance of tackling climate change and nature loss?

It would have to be the sheer scale of our leaders’ failure, our governments' failure, which is also our failure, in that we accept the limits of their actions. Sadly the closest we have come to an adequate response to climate breakdown was the intervention of a catastrophic natural event, coronavirus. The pandemic, awful as it was, and for all the pain it caused, brought us back to nature, localism, and a dream of changing society, which has now been pushed back behind the sofa.

I’ve been working on a poetic manifesto called The Walkative Revolution, which is inspired by the ways in which Paths for All walks encourage people to care for places. That care is a small agent of change, but its implications are far greater. Walking in places people come to know them, love them, and want to protect them.

I thought I would end by sharing the poems that I installed in the care homes. I was talking earlier about how art can reveal the hidden, and these texts are what I call embedded poems – they borrow an idea from crossword clues, that a word can be hidden within other words. They are playful and fun to write as, rather than beginning with a blank sheet of paper, they are generated by something that exists. The implications of that generative approach are that every environment can be enriched if we care for the living flora and fauna within it.

Robert Douglas Memorial Home
(installed on a wall)

be my heart-throb


Richmond House

a fruit snack
and a nap please


Muirton House

you get to an age
d things ripen


Ancaster House

slim elegant companion
for walks and drinks


Viewlands House

the colours may be shadows
the sounds may be echos


Watch the unveiling of Richmond Care Home's bird box below.

Find out more about:

Care about Walking in care homes

Our Walking with Nature activities

Creative Walking

Alec Finlay