The avian forebrain exhibits neurogenesis in adulthood, with neuronal production from ependymal/subependymal zone (SZ) precursor cells. To follow the commitment of newborn cells to neuronal lineage, we used their expression of the Hu family of neuronal RNA-binding proteins to identify them before their migration from the SZ. Adult canaries were injected with [3H]thymidine as a marker of DNA replication, sacrificed after varying intervals, stained for Hu, and autoradiographed. We found that Hu was not expressed by premitotic precursor cells, but rather appeared within hours in their neuronal progeny, which did not embark on parenchymal migration until 4 to 7 days later. Hu was expressed by all neurons, but not glia, both in vivo and in vitro, as determined by ultrastructural analysis as well as co-localization of Hu and cell-type selective antigens. In addition, co-staining for Hu and N-cadherin, whose expression is down-regulated on neuronal emigration from the SZ, revealed their initial co-expression by neuronal daughter cells still within the SZ. These results suggest that Hu expression may be used as a very early indicator of neuronal differentiation by SZ cells. Furthermore, the data indicate that in the adult avian brain, neuronal phenotype is established within hours of precursor mitosis, even though the neuronal daughter cells do not initiate parenchymal migration for at least 4 days thereafter, following their down-regulation of N-cadherin.