Studies of host–parasite interactions in birds have contributed greatly to our understanding of the evolution and ecology of disease. Here we employ molecular techniques to determine the incidence and study the host-specificity of parasitic trypanosomes in the African avifauna. We developed a polymerase chain reaction (PCR)-based diagnostic test that amplified the small subunit ribosomal RNA gene (SSU rRNA) of Trypanosoma from avian blood samples. This nested PCR assay complements and corroborates information obtained by the traditional method of blood smear analysis. The test was used to describe the incidence of trypanosomes in 479 host individuals representing 71 rainforest bird species from Cameroon, the Ivory Coast and Equatorial Guinea. Forty-two (59%) of these potential host species harboured trypanosomes and 189 individuals (35%) were infected. To examine host and geographical specificity, we examined the morphology and sequenced a portion of the SSU rRNA gene from representative trypanosomes drawn from different hosts and collecting locations. In traditional blood smear analyses we identified two trypanosome morphospecies, T. avium and T. everetti. Our molecular and morphological results were congruent in that these two morphospecies had highly divergent SSU rRNA sequences, but the molecular assay also identified cryptic variation in T. avium, in which we found seven closely allied haplotypes. The pattern of sequence diversity within T. avium provides evidence for widespread trypanosome mixing across avian host taxa and across geographical locations. For example, T. avium lineages with identical haplotypes infected birds from different families, whereas single host species were infected by T. avium lineages with different haplotypes. Furthermore, some conspecific hosts from geographically distant sampling locations were infected with the same trypanosome lineage, but other individuals from those locations harboured different trypanosome lineages. This apparent lack of host or geographical specificity may have important consequences for the evolutionary and ecological interactions between parasitic trypanosomes and their avian hosts.