What's the difference between el ave and el pájaro?

My Spanish class has used them both for the same bird and it really has me confused.

Are they the same thing? Or do they have distinct differences?

  • 1
    A pájaro is a flying bird (usually small ones, but not sure of that), and an ave is any kind of bird: thus a penguin or a hen are aves but not pájaros, and a canary is both ave and pájaro.
    – JMVanPelt
    Commented Oct 21, 2016 at 1:38
  • 2
    Every question expresses a desire of knowledge, so there are no dumb questions. There may be off-topic questions, but this is not the case, as I think it is a good question given that the words may be confusing indeed. So welcome to Spanish Language!
    – Charlie
    Commented Oct 21, 2016 at 6:32
  • 1
    I just learned something from this question. Since in Spanish they are almost synonyms I search on Merriam-Websters dictionary to see if there was an English synonym for bird and here is the definition. 2 : any of a class (Aves) of warm-blooded vertebrates distinguished by having the body more or less completely covered with feathers and the forelimbs modified as wings. So it happens that Aves is the name of the class in English. wikipedia
    – DGaleano
    Commented Oct 21, 2016 at 13:58

6 Answers 6


Rule of thumb:

small bird 🐦 = pájaro (general term for any bird)

large bird 🦅 = ave (scientific/poetic term for any bird)

Pájaro is the more common word, and is usually reserved for small flighted birds. Though you can use pájaro to refer to a larger bird too, it may sound something analogous to calling a shark a fish.

Ave on the other hand has a scientific or poetic flavour to it, and is usually reserved outside of these contexts for all birds that one wouldn't call a pájaro i.e. large birds or flightless birds e.g. an eagle or penguin. Calling a starling, for example, an ave might sound akin to referring to a dog as 'the mammal'.

Zoological definitions

Scientifically, Ave refers to any animal in the class of birds (i.e. one of the 5 classical divisions of the vertebrate animal kingdom: Mammals (Mammalia), reptiles (Reptilia), birds (Aves), fish (Pisces), amphibians (Amphibia)), and thus any bird is referred to as an ave. As such, it is used in the names for most groups of birds and some common names:

enter image description here

Pájaro, in a zoological context, refers specifically to passerines (Passeriformes) - the largest order of birds, encompassing over half of all species. They're characterised by their toes (three pointing forward and one back), and are more or less synonymous with 'perching bird' (or, somewhat less accurately, 'songbird'):

enter image description here

Note the near-passerine birds Picadae (Woodpeckers etc) are also called pájaros carpinteros (e.g. El Pájaro Loco). Like true passerines they are tree dwelling birds but have zygodactyl feet - 2 front facing toes and two back facing toes.

Occasionally pájaro is also used in the common names of birds e.g. el pájaro ratón, [pájaro] dodo, pájaros [cantores].

Historical use

As is apparent from their etymologies:

  • pájaropássaro ← *passaruLat. passer ("sparrow") ← PIE *p(e)t-tro- ("who flies, bird") ← *peth₂- ("to fly")

  • aveLat. avis, avem ("bird") ← PI *awisPIE *h₂éwis

historically, ave was the common word for any bird, and pássaro/pájaro was reserved for small birds. However with time, pájaro metonymically came to take on the meaning for any bird as well, with ave retreating somewhat to a more scientific gamut.

Regional differences

Due to these overlapping definitions and usages (and the huge variety in native bird populations in different hispanophone countries), different dialects of Spanish may use different terms for the same bird e.g:

  • Ostriches - normally referred to as aves (note their name: avestruz), sometimes referred to as pájaro avestruz
  • Penguins - again normally referred to as aves, sometimes referred to as pájaros bobos
  • Ducks - called pájaros in some regions due to their size; called aves in others due to their being poultry (aves de corral)


 • https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aves
 • https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pájaro_(desambiguación)
 • https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Passeriformes
 • Google Ngrams: pássaro / passaro / páxaro / paxaro / pájaro / pajaro
 • http://dle.rae.es/?w=ave
 • http://dle.rae.es/?w=pájaro


Imagine ave and pájaro are two opposite ends of a scale where you can place any bird. As you go from end to the other, your calling that bird ave or pájaro will signal more or less of certain features. For example:

  1. Ave is more formal than pájaro. Biologists and science books use ave when speaking generically or without giving specific details, for all the members of the zoological class Aves.

  2. Pájaro is mostly associated with flight. You probably won't hear penguins referred to as pájaros. If you need to describe them you'd probably say aves no voladoras. Some instead call them pájaros bobos (literally "dumb/clumsy birds").

  3. Likewise, pájaro is associated with the typical shape of flying birds and with their typical size. Penguins (especially the more stereotypical species) are comparatively large, they are clumsy and clearly don't look like they can fly. Ducks and geese are also, for this reason, not commonly called pájaros (they can fly but they are mostly seen as water birds and they sure look clumsy).

  4. Ave admits certain modifiers. Ave rapaz ("bird of prey"), ave de carroña ("carrion bird"), ave acuática ("aquatic bird"), etc. are more-or-less common terms that you can use even in informal speech to refer to or describe certain birds. Pájaro, on the other hand, does not admit these; you'll mostly qualify it using common adjetives related to color, size, etc.

  • ... and then there's pajarraco (Condorito).... Commented May 22, 2018 at 5:05

Ave is

  1. f. Animal vertebrado, ovíparo, de respiración pulmonar y sangre de temperatura constante, pico córneo, cuerpo cubierto de plumas, con dos patas y dos alas aptas por lo común para el vuelo, y que, en estado embrionario, tiene amnios y alantoides.

Pájaro is

  1. m. y f. Ave, especialmente si es pequeña.

This Wikipedia entry is both for "ave" and "pájaro". Thus, both terms mean "bird", being used "pájaro" more for the smaller ones.

On the other hand, "Aves" is the name of the class "Birds" in Biology.

  • 2
    This answer would be good if you add the translations for the quoted parts. The OP is obviously not fully proficient in Spanish so give him those definitions would surely create more confusion. Could you add those translations?
    – DGaleano
    Commented May 21, 2018 at 14:27

First, Ave is the formal word and the one used in Biology. So, like others have said, a penguin and a kiwi are aves, but I, spanish native speaker, wouldn't call either of them a pájaro.

Second, I know that the RAE definition says it, but at least in Spain in spoken language you can call ALL flying birds a pájaro.
An eagle is a pájaro as well as an ave. The difference with small and large birds is that usually, we call the large ones by the name of the species.
If you see an eagle you usually say for instance:
- He visto un águila

And you don't say:
- He visto un pájaro

And neither do you say:
- He visto un ave

But if you see a little bird you can use the word pájaro for every little bird you see at a tree or a roof or whatever.
With the same example, if you are not in a formal environment, to use the word ave would be very very strange unless we are speaking of particular contexts like poetry, or if you are a biologist doing an investigation. Otherwise you would never use the word ave that way.

That doesn't mean that you can't use the word pájaro when you are speaking about a large bird, you could say for instance He visto un pájaro enorme por allí, or A Pablo le gustan los pájaros, ¡hasta tiene un águila!, or any other phrase that meets the context and circumstances.

What I'm trying to say is that it's not like a forbidden use of the word, it's just a matter of context. Not an easy one for someone learning the language though, since it's very relative and tied to the context.

The answer saying that not all animals/things that fly are pájaro is true. A pájaro has to be an ave: a bat is a mammal so it's not a pájaro, likewise an aeroplane is a machine so it's not a pájaro.

  • Confusing but correct :-) +1
    – DGaleano
    Commented May 21, 2018 at 14:30

Aside from the already mentioned distinction (not 100% taxative!) between flying and not flying birds, I'd add that "ave" is a more formal, more scientific and more poetic term, while "pájaro" is more colloquial.


Ave can refer to pretty much anything that flies. Typically though, it's usually associated with animals. I consider the word "ave" to reference such flying animals as a species. Much like how you can call a car a vehicle, but a car is not a truck.

Pájaro on the other hand is associated with the animal itself more than the fact that it can fly. Just as in English, you can call the animal a "bird", but you could also call it what it really is, e.g cardinal, robin, chicken, flamingo, penguin, and so on... they're all birds. That isn't to say though that 'pájaro' can be used to point out a duck, penguin, or whatever.

Pájaro is the little bird in your window, the crow that steals your crops, the animal eating from the bird feeder.

  • 1
    I like this answer since it explains the meaning in English but I'd change "anything that flies" for "anything with feathers" since penguins, ostrich and emu are clearly "aves" but not "pájaros". These have feathers but don't fly. The bird definition includes feathers and wings, not flying.
    – DGaleano
    Commented Oct 21, 2016 at 14:05
  • 1
    I think they are placed the other way round in this answer — Pretty much anything that flies is a pájaro, and an ave is what is associated with the animal itself.
    – JMVanPelt
    Commented Oct 21, 2016 at 17:30
  • 1
    @JMVanPelt, so are you saying that you can call an airplane a "pájaro" and be understood?
    – dockeryZ
    Commented Oct 21, 2016 at 18:02
  • 1
    @dockeryZ I thought we were talking about animals. I could ask the same, can you call an airplane an "ave" and be understood, as you said in the first place that pretty much anything that flies is an "ave"? Besides, you can call an ostrich an ave but not a pájaro, as it does not fly.
    – JMVanPelt
    Commented Oct 21, 2016 at 18:39
  • "Anything that flies," such as insects? Commented May 22, 2018 at 5:01

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