Current evidence suggests both thymic and extrathymic origins for T cells. Studies in mice favor an in situ origin for a prominent population of intestinal intraepithelial lymphocytes that express gamma/delta T cell receptor (TCR). This developmental issue is explored in an avian model in which the gamma/delta lymphocytes constitute a major T cell subpopulation that is accessible for study during the earliest stages of lymphocyte development. In the chick embryo, cells bearing the gamma/delta TCR appear first in the thymus where they reach peak levels on days 14-15 of embryogenesis, just 2 d before gamma/delta T cells appear in the intestine. Using two congenic chick strains, one of which expresses the ov antigen, we studied the origin and kinetics of intestinal colonization by gamma/delta T cells. The embryonic gamma/delta+ thymocytes homed to the intestine where they survived for months, whereas an embryonic gamma/delta- thymocyte population enriched in thymocyte precursors failed to give rise to intestinal gamma/delta+ T cells. Embryonic hemopoietic tissues, bone marrow, and spleen, were also ineffective sources for intestinal gamma/delta+ T cells. Intestinal colonization by gamma/delta+ thymocytes occurred in two discrete waves in embryos and newly hatched birds. The data indicate that intestinal gamma/delta T cells in the chicken are primarily thymic migrants that are relatively long-lived.