Dependent offspring use specialized traits to attract parental care. In birds, this includes morphological ornaments (e.g. colourful plumage or mouthparts) that are associated with nestling condition and shape the allocation of parental care. Ornament expression often differs among broods, even after differences in individual condition are accounted for statistically. Understanding how this variation arises is important for understanding the information content of these signals, their functional importance, and their evolution. The present study used a cross-fostering experiment to assess the relative contributions of parental effects to among-brood differences in the mouth coloration of nestling house sparrows, specifically the carotenoid-richness, overall brightness, and ultraviolet (UV) coloration of rictal flanges. The expression of carotenoid-based coloration was explained by synchronous breeding, nest-of-rearing and nest-of-origin. Brightness and relative UV intensity, however, were explained only by synchronous breeding, and there was substantial unexplained variation in all three colour parameters. Among-brood variation in mouth coloration, then, may primarily contain information about the environment in which offspring are reared. At the individual level, ontogenetic changes in the carotenoid-richness and brightness of flanges positively reflected mass gain (a proxy for food intake). Larger and yellower chicks gained more mass, consistent with parental preferences for these traits. © 2012 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2012, 106, 169–179.