The government can capture the last three California condors living in the wild and place them in zoos with the endangered species' 24 survivors, the U.S. Court of Appeals here ruled yesterday.

The decision by a three-judge panel lifted a restraining order against the planned capture by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

U.S. District Court Judge Barrington D. Parker had issued the injunction in January at the request of the National Audubon Society, which argued that the roundup would make it impossible to re-establish flocks in the wild.

But Donald Alan Carr, chief of the Justice Department's wildlife and marine resources division, said that it is necessary to place the large birds in "protective custody, at least for a while . . . to preserve the species as a whole."

In a brief order, Appeals Court Judges Harry T. Edwards, Kenneth W. Starr and Laurence H. Silberman said that the agency's decision to capture the birds was a "reasoned exercise of [its] discretion" and complied with federal law.

The condor, with a wing span of as much as nine feet and a weight of up to 30 pounds, is the largest land bird in North America.

Since Parker's order, two more condors have been taken to the captive breeding flocks in the San Diego and Los Angeles zoos, with Audubon Society consent.

Last weekend, a condor egg laid in the wild was hatched in the San Diego zoo. The three remaining wild birds are males.

Carr said that the government is committed to reintroducing condors to the wild as soon as sufficient offspring are produced. He said that the Interior Department will continue its efforts to purchase Hudson Ranch, a major condor feeding ground in southern California.

The Audubon Society had charged that removing the birds would open the area for commercial development.