Begging passerine chicks display brightly coloured mouths as they solicit food from their parents. Despite a range of hypotheses, the function of vivid nestling mouth colour remains unknown. Here I report that mouth colour functions as a signal of need in canary nestlings, in the days immediately following hatching. Changes in mouth colour accurately reflect a nestling's state of need: the more food deprived the chick, the more intensely coloured its mouth. In controlled experiments with two nestlings, parents were offered the opportunity to choose which nestling to feed. When the mouth colour of one offspring was artificially reddened using food colouring, parents gave it more food. These results demonstrate a novel function for nestling mouth colour and are consistent with recent models of the resolution of parent-offspring conflict.