Developing networks of the chick spinal cord become spontaneously active early in development and remain so until hatching. Experiments using an isolated preparation of the spinal cord have begun to reveal the mechanisms responsible for this activity. Whole-cell and optical recordings have shown that spinal neurons receive a rhythmic, depolarizing synaptic drive and experience rhythmic elevations of intracellular calcium during spontaneous episodes. Activity is expressed throughout the neuraxis and can be produced by different parts of the cord and by the isolated brain stem, suggesting that it does not depend upon the details of network architecture. Two factors appear to be particularly important for the production of endogenous activity. The first is the predominantly excitatory nature of developing synaptic connections, and the second is the presence of prolonged activity-dependent depression of network excitability. The interaction between high excitability and depression results in an equilibrium in which episodes are expressed periodically by the network. The mechanism of the rhythmic bursting within an episode is not understood, but it may be due to a "fast" form of network depression. Spontaneous embryonic activity has been shown to play a role in neuron and muscle development, but is probably not involved in the initial formation of connections between spinal neurons. It may be important in refining the initial connections, but this possibility remains to be explored.