Current theory proposes that nestlings beg to signal hunger level to parents honestly, or that siblings compete by escalating begging to attract the attention of parents. Although begging is assumed to be directed at parents, barn owl (Tyto alba) nestlings vocalize in the presence but also in the absence of the parents. Applying the theory of asymmetrical contests we experimentally tested three predictions of the novel hypothesis that in the absence of the parents siblings vocally settle contests over prey items to be delivered next by a parent. This ‘sibling negotiation hypothesis’ proposes that offspring use each others' begging vocalization as a source of information about their relative willingness to contest the next prey item delivered. In line with the hypothesis we found that (i) a nestling barn owl refrains from vocalization when a rival is more hungry, but (ii) escalates once the rival has been fed by a parent, and (iii) nestlings refrain from and escalate vocalization in experimentally enlarged and reduced broods, respectively. Thus, when parents are not at the nest a nestling vocally refrains when the value of the next delivered prey item will be higher for its nest–mates. These findings are the exact opposite of what current models predict for begging calls produced in the presence of the parents.