• Begging calls;
  • brood parasitism;
  • coevolution;
  • learning;
  • social shaping

Coevolution between parasites and their hosts typically leads to increasing specialization on host species by the parasite. Where multiple hosts are parasitized, specialization on each host can result in genetic divergence within the parasite population to create host races, and, ultimately, new species. We investigate how host-specific traits arise in Horsfield's bronze-cuckoo Chalcites basalis nestlings. Newly hatched cuckoos evict host young from the nest, yet in the absence of a model they accurately mimic the different begging calls of a primary host (superb fairy-wren, Malurus cyaneus) and a secondary host (buff-rumped thornbill, Acanthiza reguloides). Using cross-fostering experiments, we show that begging calls are modified after parasitism, through experience. Further, we demonstrate the mechanism by which mimetic calls are acquired. All cuckoo nestlings initially produced the call of their primary host. When cross-fostered as eggs to a secondary host, calls increased in variability and were rapidly modified to resemble those of the secondary host through shaping by host parents. We suggest that plasticity in the development of host-specific traits after parasitism is likely to reduce selection for host race formation.