On Wicken Fen and nearby watercourses eastern England, parasitism by cuckoos, Cuculus canorus, declined from 26% and 16% of reed warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus) nests in 1985 and 1986, respectively, to 2 to 6% of nests in 1995 to 1997, owing to a decline in cuckoos. Experiments with model eggs showed that over this 12–year period there was a marked decline in host rejection of non–mimetic eggs, from rejection at 75% of reed warbler nests in 1985 to 1986 to 25%, nests in 1997. Calculations suggest that this decline in host defences is too rapid to reflect only genetic change, and is more likely to be the outcome of adaptive phenotypic flexibility. Two other results show flexibility in host responses. First, there was a seasonal decline in rejection, which accompanied the seasonal decline in parasitism. Second, although rejection did not vary with proximity to a naturally parasitized nest within the 3.4km2 of Wicken Fen and its surrounds, there was no rejection at a small unparasitized population 11km away. Flexible host defences will be advantageous when there are costs of rejection as well as short–term temporal changes and small–scale geographical variation in parasitism rate. Other recent studies reporting changes in host defences may also reflect phenotypic flexibility rather than evolutionary change.