Host range and parasite specificity determine key epidemiological, ecological and evolutionary aspects of host–parasite interactions. Parasites are usually classified as generalists or specialists based on the number of hosts they feed on. Yet, the requirements of the various stages of a parasite may influence the suitability of a given host species. Here, we investigate the generalist nature of three common ectoparasites (the dipteran Carnus hemapterus and two species of louse flies, Pseudolynchia canariensis and Ornithophila metallica), exploiting two avian host species (the European roller Coracias garrulus and the Rock pigeon Columba livia), that frequently occupy the same breeding sites. We explore the prevalence and abundance of both the infective and the puparial stages of the ectoparasites in both host species. Strong preferences of Pseudolynchia canariensis for pigeons and of Carnus hemapterus for rollers were found. Moderate prevalence of Ornithophila metallica was found in rollers but this louse fly avoided pigeons. In some cases, the infestation patterns observed for imagoes and puparia were consistent whereas in other cases host preferences inferred from imagoes differed from the ones suggested by puparia. We propose that the adult stages of these ectoparasites are more specialist than reported and that the requirements of non-infective stages can restrict the effective host range of some parasites.