A half-pound, wrinkly California condor chick appears to be in "good health" in a San Diego zoo, the first of its vanishing species to hatch in captivity, officials there said yesterday.

The baldheaded bird, covered with yellow down, emerged from its pale blue shell Wednesday evening, aided by two birdkeepers who used surgical instruments and their hands to help the chick after it punched a quarter-sized hole.

For the last day it has been receiving meals of "finely chopped baby mice in warm water" and shows a "hearty appetite," zoo spokesman Jeff Jouett said.

The precious egg had been carefully kept in an incubator at the zoo after being transported by helicopter from the wilds of Ventura County, north of Los Angeles. It was laid on Feb. 2 and captured on Feb. 23, a robbery that some scientists say is justified to encourage the baby condor's parents to try again--doubling the breeding possibilities for this season.

Although there is no assurance that the tiny chick will survive, its successful birth represents a small triumph in the difficult battle to save the endangered species.

Only about 20 California condors remain in the wild, including four mating couples, and they are dying off at the rate of about three a year. The cause of their demise is unknown, but man's activities, from hunting to power lines and urban incursions into rural areas, are blamed.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the private Audubon Society are spending about $500,000 a year on a captive breeding program designed to increase the diminishing numbers, with the San Diego zoo also receiving local funding. There are already three California condors in captivity, but all are male.

Other environmental groups have criticized the effort, saying that attention should instead be focused on saving the rugged coastal mountain ranges and ranch lands the California condor prefers.

If the newborn chick grows to maturity it will be among the largest of American vultures. Adult California condors, menacing gray-brown creatures that prey on the carcasses of dead animals, weigh about 20 pounds and have a wingspread of 9 feet.

The chick's sex is unknown and will not be determined until it is four to six months old and large enough to survive a blood test, according to a zoo statement. The condor is tentatively called R-1 and will eventually receive an Indian name.

While the ultimate goal is to return captive condors to their native environment, zookeepers first face the difficult task of duplicating the chick's early life in the wild. The chick was placed in a plastic Isolette and transferred to the San Diego Wild Animal Park 30 miles away late yesterday.

Officials said the baby will be fed regurgitated vulture food by puppets that look like condors. "We aren't sure it's going to work, but it's the very best effort humans could make at saving the condor," said condor keeper Bill Toone.

A second egg is also being incubated at the zoo and is due to hatch within the next two weeks.