In the small intestine transcellular and paracellular pathways are implicated in water-soluble nutrient absorption. In small birds the paracellular pathway is quantitatively important while transcellular pathway is much more important in terrestrial mammals. However, there is not a clear understanding of the mechanistic underpinnings of the differences among taxa. This study was aimed to test the hypothesis that paracellular permeability in perfused intestinal segments is higher in passerine birds than rodents. We performed in situ intestinal perfusions on individuals of three species of passerine birds (Passer domesticus, Taeniopygia guttata and Furnarius rufus) and two species of rodents (Mus musculus and Meriones ungiculatus). Using radio-labelled molecules, we measured the uptake of two nutrients absorbed by paracellular and transcellular pathways (L-proline and 3–O–methyl–D-glucose) and one carbohydrate that has no mediated transport (L-arabinose). Birds exhibited ˜2 to ˜3 times higher L-arabinose clearance per cm2 epithelium than rodents. Moreover, paracellular absorption accounted for proportionally more of 3–O–methyl–D-glucose and L-proline absorption in birds than in rodents. These differences could be explained by differences in intestinal permeability and not by other factors such as increased retention time or higher intestinal nominal surface area. Furthermore, analysis of our results and all other existing data on birds, bats and rodents shows that insectivorous species (one bird, two bats and a rodent) had only 30% of the clearance of L-arabinose of non-insectivorous species. This result may be explained by weaker natural selection for high paracellular permeability in animal- than in plant-consumers. Animal-consumers absorb less sugar and more amino acids, whose smaller molecular size allow them to traverse the paracellular pathway more extensively and faster than glucose.