Facial flushing, a colour change caused by variation of blood flow through highly vascularized skin, has been observed in taxonomically diverse bird species but the function of the behaviour has not been assessed. Lappet-faced vultures, Aegypius tracheliotos, have unfeathered heads that can rapidly flush from pink to dark red, and this has been hypothesized to indicate contest ability in vulture gatherings. We show that adults with flushed heads won most interactions against those with pale heads. A previously unnoticed colour variation of the throat, visible only when the head is flushed, was also related to the outcome of interactions: blue-throated adults participated in, and won, more interactions than red-throated adults. We suggest that the non-fixed groups of which lappet-faced vulture populations consist promote the evolution of signals of dominance that can be adjusted extremely rapidly.