Some organisms maintain a battery of defensive strategies against their exploiters (predators, parasites or parasitoids), while others fail to employ a defence that seems obvious. In this paper, we shall investigate the circumstances under which defence strategies might be expected to evolve. Brood parasites and their hosts provide our main motivation, and we shall discuss why the reed warbler Acrocephalus scirpaceus has evolved an egg-rejection but not a chick-rejection strategy as a defence against the common (Eurasian) cuckoo Cuculus canorus, while the superb fairy-wren Malurus cyaneus has evolved a chick-rejection but not an egg-rejection strategy as a defence against Horsfield's bronze-cuckoo Chrysococcyx basalis. We suggest that the answers lie in strategy-blocking, where one strategy (the blocking strategy) prevents the appearance of another (the blocked strategy) that would be adaptive in its absence. This may be common in exploiter–victim systems.