The possibility of plumage status signalling within the social systems of wintering birds has been a controversial issue. Our results are the first to demonstrate conclusively the reality of such signalling. Data from eight groups of captive white-crowned sparrows ( Zonotrichia leucophrys gambelii ), each with 8 to 11 different individuals, show that immature and adult females with crowns painted to resemble more brightly coloured, dominant adult males consistently win encounters with control birds of their own age and sex. These experiments demonstrate that signals that correlate with age (adult versus immature) and sex (adult male versus adult female) are used by the birds as reliable indicators of relative dominance position. Our demonstration of status signalling draws attention to the need to explain how such a system can be evolutionarily stable and we discuss some suitable models.