Brood parasitic birds offer a unique opportunity to examine the ecological and evolutionary determinants of host associations in avian feather lice (Phthiraptera). Brood parasitic behaviour effectively eliminates vertical transfer of lice between parasitic parents and offspring at the nest, while at the same time providing an opportunity for lice associated with the hosts of brood parasites to colonize the brood parasites as well. Thus, the biology of brood parasitism allows a test of the relative roles of host specialization and dispersal ecology in determining the host–parasite associations of birds and lice. If the opportunity for dispersal is the primary determinant of louse distributions, then brood parasites and their hosts should have similar louse faunas. In contrast, if host-specific adaptations limit colonization ability, lice associated with the hosts of brood parasites may be unable to persist on the brood parasites despite having an opportunity for colonization. We surveyed lice on four brood parasitic finch species (genus Vidua), their estrildid finch host species, and a few ploceid finches. While Brueelia lice were found on both parasitic and estrildid finches, a molecular phylogeny showed that lice infesting the two avian groups belong to two distinct clades within Brueelia. Likewise, distinct louse lineages within the amblyceran genus Myrsidea were found on estrildid finches and the parasitic pin-tailed whydah (Vidua macroura), respectively. Although common on estrildid finches, Myrsidea lice were entirely absent from the brood parasitic indigobirds. The distribution and relationships of louse species on brood parasitic finches and their hosts suggest that host-specific adaptations constrain the ability of lice to colonize new hosts, at least those that are distantly related.