This study is the first to compare bird communities across different sites within the same large continuous neotropical primary forest area. The objectives were to document bird distribution patterns, the spatial variability of specific abundances and the between-site turnover in species compositions. I censused 268 forest-interior species, 39 raptors and 135 natural-gap species in 20 widely spaced, c. 2000-ha sites in the interior of French Guiana, divided into three main zones. At least 59% of species had a very low abundance index and/or rate of occurrence among sites and only 1% were widespread dominants. Beta diversity was an important determinant of regional species richness. There was an average 29% species turnover between sites and 7% between regions, as well as a lack of nested-subset structure among communities and a random occurrence of pairs of similar congeners. At the country scale, only one species had a truly restricted geographical range, independent of habitat availability, but at a local scale, many species had uneven distributional gaps (36% present at < 50% of sites with suitable habitat). Among sites, abundance or incidence variability had no definite pattern. Frequency of occurrence in suitable patches decreased with increasing natural fragmentation of habitats. There were significant relationships between habitat selection and abundance or frequency of occurrence but not with diet or body size. Few species exhibited consistent geographical trends along the north-south gradient of decreasing rainfall. Guianan endemics tended to be widespread within the country. Several seasonal movements and inter-annual population fluctuations were documented. Rarity had different forms, but no general ecological correlates. Nearly half of rare species were associated with various types of forest gaps or edges, and were consequently more abundant outside the forest zone, i.e. in grasslands or clearings. Local occurrences and abundances seem to be the result of highly species-specific factors, and hence any general determinant of community structure may be obscured by specific reactions in such species-rich, heterogeneous and complex tropical rain-forest communities.