A phagocytic cell system of hemopoietic origin exists in the early avian embryo (Cuadros, Coltey, Nieto, and Martin: Development 115:157-168, '92). In this study we investigated the presence of cells belonging to this system in the central nervous system (CNS) of chick and quail embryos by using both histochemical staining for acid phosphatase and immunolabelling with antibodies recognizing cells of quail hemangioblastic lineage. The origin of these cells was traced in interspecific chick-quail yolk sac chimeras. Hemopoietic cells were detected within the CNS from developmental stage HH15 on, and steadily increased in number at subsequent stages. Analysis of yolk sac chimeras revealed that most of these cells were of yolk sac origin, although some hemopoietic cells of intramebryonic origin were also found in the CNS. Immunocytochemical, histochemical, and ultrastructural characterization allowed us to identify hemopoietic cells in the CNS as macrophages. These cells were consistently found in the brain vesicles and spinal cord, appearing (1) between undifferentiated neuroepithelial cells at dorsal levels of the CNS; (2) in areas of cell death; (3) in the marginal layer in close relationship with developing axons; (4) in large extracellular spaces in the subventricular layer; (5) on vascular buds growing through the marginal and subventricular layers; and (6) in the ventricular lumen. Macrophages in different locations varied in morphology and ultrastructure, suggesting that in addition to their involvement in phagocytosis, they play a role in other processes in the developing CNS, such as axonal growth and vascular development. The first macrophages migrate to the CNS independently of its vascularization, apparently traversing the pial basal lamina to reach the nervous parenchyma. Other macrophages may enter the CNS together with vascular buds at subsequent stages during CNS vascularization.