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Defying downdrafts and early predictions of doom, two California condors took brief wing over the chaparral hills of California this week, a successful first step in man's quest to save a species from extinction.

Their release in a remote sanctuary 50 miles northwest of here is a milestone in a $25 million program to breed the giant vultures in zoos and return them to the wild. Launched in controversy 10 years ago, it will provide a major test of the nation's endangered species program.

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The birds were first moved to the site in October. Until Tuesday, however, they had been confined to a man-made cave that acted as an ornithological way station - a protected area where they could slowly acclimate to the wild.

In their first days of freedom, "Xewe" and "Chocuyens" took only short flights. Downdrafts made it difficult for the fledglings to soar. Once the winds shift and the condors gain more strength, though, they are expected to again ride thermals.

"Everybody is just excited that we have another species in the wild," says Robert Mesta of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

When the last California condor was captured five years ago, there were only 27 remaining. Captive breeding has bumped that number up to 52. Scientists hope to release a few more condors each year. The first two, if they survive, won't be ready to breed for almost six years.

Ugly up close but spectacular in flight, the California condor, dating back nearly a million years, once soared from Canada to Mexico on wings that can reach 10 feet. Lead poisoning, DDT, hunters, and shrinking habitat brought it to near extinction. The question now: can the zoo-bred birds survive and reproduce in the wild, replenishing an ancient species?

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