They were cold, wet and hungry when wildlife experts carried them into the International Bird Rescue Research Center in June, not far from where they were discovered among scores of dead birds that washed ashore in Long Beach.
On Monday, after six weeks of feeding and exercise at the facility in San Pedro, the nine surviving terns, now plump with feathers, took flight after their release at Cabrillo Beach.
"When they came in, they were babies. And they didn't have their parents to feed them, so we did," said center Director Jay Holcomb. "They really wanted to get out."
"There has been a lot of joy, but there's also sadness that we're releasing nine out of a colony of hundreds," Holcomb added. "These animals were basically treated like garbage."
More than 400 elegant and Caspian terns died last month after they were swept off -- possibly deliberately -- two stationary barges where they were nesting, just south of Island White. The birds may have been disturbed when the barges were moved.
The state Department of Fish and Game is still investigating the incident.
If the birds were forceably removed, it would be a misdemeanor under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. If deemed an act of animal cruelty, it would be prosecutable as a felony in California.
The nine delicate black-and-white birds were fattened up inside a 20-foot-high, outdoor aviary with a steady diet of minnows and goldfish. Once their coat of feathers sprouted, they practiced hovering and diving for food -- a sign that it was time to fly the coop.
Before they were released, staff members attached to each bird a numbered silver band to one leg and two orange bands to the other, allowing bird-watchers and biologists to track the terns. Also, their chests and wings were dabbed with fluorescent green dye, making them easier to spot.
Wildlife experts applied the tracking devices because the juvenile terns usually have a parent to feed them, but since these are orphans, their chances of survival are unknown.
"What we're doing is telling anybody that looks at terns along this harbor to report any ones with green dye on them," Holcomb said.
He said nine is the largest number of terns ever released from the center. Twelve Caspian terns, also rescued, are expected to be sent off later this week.
To report sightings of the marked terns, call Kimball Garrett, ornithology collections manager, at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County at (213) 763-3368.