The avian egg has been proven to be an excellent model for the study of the physical principles and the physiological characteristics of embryonic gas exchange. In recent years, it has become a model for the studies of the prenatal development of pulmonary ventilation, its chemical control and its interaction with extra-pulmonary gas exchange. Differently from mammals, in birds the initiation of pulmonary ventilation and the transition from diffusive to convective gas exchange are gradual and slow-occurring events amenable to detailed investigations. The absence of the placenta and of the mother permits the study of the mechanisms of embryonic adaptation to prenatal perturbations in a way that would be impossible with mammalian preparations. First, this review summarises the general aspects of the natural history of the avian egg that are pertinent to embryonic metabolism, growth and gas exchange and the characteristics of the structures participating in gas exchange. Then, the review focuses on the embryonic development of pulmonary ventilation, its regulation in relation to the embryo's environment and metabolic state, the effects that acute or sustained changes in embryonic temperature or oxygenation can have on growth, metabolism and ventilatory control.