The functional links of specific retinoid receptors to early developmental events in the avian embryo are not known. Before such studies are undertaken, knowledge is required of the spatiotemporal expression patterns of the receptor genes and their regulation by endogenous retinoic acid levels during the early stages of development. Here, we report the expression patterns of mRNAs for RARalpha, RARalpha2, RARbeta2, RARgamma, RARgamma2, RXRalpha, and RARgamma from neurulation to HH10 in the normal and vitamin A-deficient (VAD) quail embryo. The transcripts for all retinoid receptors are detectable at HH5, except for RXRgamma, which is detected at the beginning of HH6. At the 4/5 somite stage of HH8, when retinoid signaling is initiated in the avian embryo, mRNAs of all receptors are present, with very strong and ubiquitous expression patterns for RARalpha, RARalpha2, RARgamma, RARgamma2, and RXRalpha, a persistent expression of RARgamma in the neural tissues, a strong expression of RARbeta2 in lateral plate mesoderm and somites, and an anterior expression of RXRgamma. All retinoid receptors are expressed in the heart primordia. In the VAD quail embryo, the general pattern of retinoid receptor transcript localization is similar to that of the normal, except that the expression of RARalpha2 and RARbeta2 is severely diminished. Administration of retinol or retinoic acid to VAD embryos at or before the 4/5 somite stage rescues the expression of RARalpha2 and RARbeta2 within approximately 45 min and restores normal development. RARbeta2 expression requires the expression of RARalpha2. After neurulation, the expression of all retinoid receptors in the VAD quail embryo becomes independent of vitamin A status and is similar to that of the normal. The mRNA levels and sites of expression of the key enzyme for retinoic acid biosynthesis, Raldh-2, are not affected by vitamin A status; the expression pattern is restricted and does not correspond to that of retinoid receptors at all sites. The general patterns and intensity of retinoid receptor gene expression during early quail development are comparable to those of the mammalian and thus validate the application of results from retinoid-regulated avian development studies to those of the mammalian.