Burst activity, defined by groups of two or more spikes with intervals of < or = 8 ms, was analyzed in responses to drifting sinewave gratings elicited from striate cortical neurons in anesthetized cats. Bursting varied broadly across a population of 507 simple and complex cells. Half of this population had > or = 42% of their spikes contained in bursts. The fraction of spikes in bursts did not vary as a function of average firing rate and was stationary over time. Peaks in the interspike interval histograms were found at both 3-5 ms and 10-30 ms. In many cells the locations of these peaks were independent of firing rate, indicating a quantized control of firing behavior at two different time scales. The activity at the shorter time scale most likely results from intrinsic properties of the cell membrane, and that at the longer scale from recurrent network excitation. Burst frequency (bursts per s) and burst length (spikes per burst) both depended on firing rate. Burst frequency was essentially linear with firing rate, whereas burst length was a nonlinear function of firing rate and was also governed by stimulus orientation. At a given firing rate, burst length was greater for optimal orientations than for nonoptimal orientations. No organized orientation dependence was seen in bursts from lateral geniculate nucleus cells. Activation of cortical contrast gain control at low response amplitudes resulted in no burst length modulation, but burst shortening at optimal orientations was found in responses characterized by supersaturation. At a given firing rate, cortical burst length was shortened by microinjection of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), and bursts became longer in the presence of N-methyl-bicuculline, a GABA(A) receptor blocker. These results are consistent with a model in which responses are reduced at nonoptimal orientations, at least in part, by burst shortening that is mediated by GABA. A similar mechanism contributes to response supersaturation at high contrasts via recruitment of inhibitory responses that are tuned to adjacent orientations. Burst length modulation can serve as a form of coding by supporting dynamic, stimulus-dependent reorganization of the effectiveness of individual network connections.