A linkage disequilibrium between sexually selected and life history traits can be explained by three mutually non-exclusive mechanisms. Genes coding for two traits may be located close on the same chromosome, genes responsible for variation in one of the trait may pleiotropically alter the other, and non-random pairing with respect to two traits may generate a non-physical linkage disequilibrium between their genes. Knowledge of which of these three mechanisms is responsible for a covariation between two traits is of interest to understand why differently ornamented individuals differ in several phenotypic aspects. In Switzerland, barn owls Tyto alba mate randomly with respect to a colour polymorphism generating a large range of variants between reddish-brown and white, males being lighter coloured than females. Several studies have shown that plumage coloration is not neutral with respect to some life history components. To test whether coloration is genetically associated with body size, partial cross-fostering experiments were performed by exchanging some hatchlings between nests. These experiments showed that darker biological fathers produce longer-tailed offspring. This sex-specific pattern is consistent with the hypothesis of non-physical linkage disequilibrium. In line with this hypothesis, darker coloured males were mated with longer-tailed females, whereas female coloration was not associated with tail length of their mate. The finding that dark nestlings had a longer tail than their pale siblings also supports the physical linkage and pleiotropy hypotheses. Therefore, non-random pairing can generate or strengthen a genetic covariation between a secondary sexual character and a morphological trait. © 2006 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2006, 88, 475–488.