Meet our New Executive Director, Jessica Wilson

Executive Director Jessica Wilson with Eurasian Eagle-Owl at Raptorama Festival at Marine Park. Photo: NYC Bird Alliance


This article appears in the spring 2022 issue of The Urban Audubon.

By Kellye Rosenheim

Coming from a strong background in nonprofit leadership dedicated to urban green spaces and environmental conservation, Jessica Wilson took the helm of NYC Bird Alliance in late January. Educated at Amherst College and Columbia Business School, this lifelong New Yorker and birder has been most recently the chief development officer at the Friends of Governors Island. She and Kellye Rosenheim had a talk about her first days on the job.

Congratulations on the new post, Jessica!
Thank you, Kellye. I’m thrilled to be here among such a passionate and motivated group—from our 10,000 members, 1,500 volunteers, and many valued partners, to our top-notch staff. I love birds, and I’m really committed to them. And as a New Yorker, I’m also committed to the health and vibrancy of the City. This is a place I’ve always called home, and I’m excited to work on protections for both birds and New Yorkers.

As a birdwatcher, you must be pretty excited, too.
Absolutely. I’ve been a birder my whole life—though compared to many of the accomplished birders in our community, I would describe myself as an intermediate-level enthusiast, not an expert. As a New York City kid, I discovered nature in its parks. When I was a teenager, I stumbled upon a bird walk in Central Park led by legendary leader Sarah Elliott. It was a very different world of birders at the time, and I was the youngest person by far on her weekly bird walks. In college, I studied biology with a focus on bird behavior, and my early jobs were in science education as a textbook editor and at a science museum.

After getting my MBA, I spent time in marketing for American Express, but my heart eventually pulled me back to the nonprofit sector. At the National Audubon Society, I led marketing and engagement, and for much of the last decade, I’ve been lucky to work in some of New York City’s great parks and open spaces. I was at Prospect Park Alliance for several years and most recently at the Friends of Governors Island, where I was able to combine my passion for urban wildlife and environmental sustainability with my background in fundraising and community engagement.

What would you say has been your most rewarding career accomplishment to date?
Looking back at my work on Governors Island, I’m proud to have grown and stabilized the organization. The Friends of Governors Island is the Island’s designated fundraising partner, and while there, I focused on boosting fundraising efforts, in partnership with our board, staff, and partners at the Trust for Governors Island. We doubled our budget—enabling us to hire more staff and build our volunteer program, improve visitor services, and provide more money for the upkeep and landscaping of the island. At this point, the Friends is able to provide 75 percent of the funds needed to keep the island beautiful and green, including providing great habitat for more than 200 bird species.

What have been your first tasks as you settle into the NYC  Audubon job?
In my first few weeks, I’ve been focused on meeting everyone, including the staff, board, and advisory council, our members on bird walks, and our partners. It’s been inspiring to learn more about the terrific work that’s already being done with our on-the-ground science and advocacy. While I’ve been connected to NYC Bird Alliance for years as a member and also as a volunteer in the early days of Project Safe Flight, I’m excited to get more involved with our programs.

What do you see the future NYC Bird Alliance looking like?
I’m eager to help strengthen and expand the work that we already do so well. I see real potential with green roofs to create new habitat and engage more New Yorkers in conservation. Another priority is building on our advocacy; we’ve had great wins with bird-friendly building legislation and are well on our way to effective City Council Lights Out laws and statewide Dark Skies legislation as well.

We will grow and be effective by expanding our audience, and then by mobilizing that army to take action by volunteering and advocating. A goal of mine is to build on the strong diversity and inclusion efforts already in place, to engage all New Yorkers in protecting birds and their habitats. To succeed we’ll need our community, our elected officials, our nonprofit partners, our real estate and building partners, and the City’s open space managers.

I also think there’s a tremendous opportunity to partner with the Audubon network—from the National Audubon Society and Audubon New York to the Audubon Urban Chapter Network and other local chapters—to have broad and meaningful impact. Because, of course, many of our birds are only borrowed for a few months of the year: they depend on habitat and protection across the whole flyway, so aligning our programs, our strategies, and in some cases our outreach efforts, can really amplify the work that we do.

Jessica (and husband Craig, behind the camera) explore the Catskills with children Sadie and Jake. Photo: Craig Wilson

Given your experience at other New York City organizations, how do you view NYC Bird Alliance’s role among the City’s other environmental nonprofits?
NYC Bird Alliance has a critical role to play in the local protection of birds across the five boroughs. Our decades of historical data and on-the-ground science give us a trusted and credible voice, enabling us to mobilize a dedicated corps of advocates and to influence legislators and open space managers. But we can’t do the work alone, and depend on strong partnerships with other local groups.

We recently made great strides technologically, redoing our website, expanding our outreach through social media and online programming, and overhauling our back office. How do you see technology helping us achieve our goals?
COVID-19 forced a lot of organizations to go digital, in a way that can have some positive impacts and can further the mission of NYC Bird Alliance. Technology has helped us become more efficient in our work and improve volunteer engagement and advocacy outreach. It can also help us reach a broader audience: online programs can be more accessible for those who can’t travel or may not be able to carve out the time needed to attend an in-person program. Social media and digital resources can also be a way to engage somebody new with birds and conservation in a low-commitment sort of way.

But technology will never be a substitute for being there in person. There’s nothing like seeing a bird “IRL” (in real life) and sharing that experience with other New Yorkers.

Speaking of which, is your whole family into birding?
Oh yes. I live near Prospect Park, and that’s our birding “patch.” It’s where I participated in December’s Audubon Christmas Bird Count. I have two small kids who love nature and are starting to get into birds themselves. My two-year-old, Jake, already knows several bird calls, and Sadie, my five-year-old, is somewhat proficient with binoculars. My husband Craig is really looking forward to bringing the kids to NYC Bird Alliance’s festivals. I can’t wait to take them to Raptorama at Jamaica Bay. They’re going to love that.

When you tell people about your new role at NYC Bird Alliance, how do you describe the work?
What’s good for birds is good for people and the city of New York. By protecting birds and habitat, we protect all New Yorkers and improve the quality of life for everyone. This is already the essence of the organization, and I’m just so excited to be a part of that mission.

Read a recent letter from Jessica to the NYC Bird Alliance community on our blog, Syrinx.