AS a child, I regarded wild birds as the ultimate symbols of freedom. I wasn’t allowed to cross the street, but these feathered free spirits could pick up and fly to anywhere on Earth; they could fly to heaven and back, it seemed, soaring with the angels. Chafing against restrictions, I dreamed of the absolute liberty of flying away like a wild bird, never to return.

Once I grew up and started reading ornithology texts, I learned that that complete freedom was an illusion. Every bird species was bound by instincts, tied into predictable patterns of occurrence. In theory, this chickadee could leave its flock, that cardinal could leave its territory and just start flying in a new direction. In practice, they almost certainly would do nothing of the kind. Powerful instincts held every bird in place.

Later, traveling around the world to observe nature, I came to a startling realization: Free as a bird? We

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