Understanding the function of variation in sleep requires studies in the natural ecological conditions in which sleep evolved. Sleep has an impact on individual performance and hence may integrate the costs and benefits of investing in processes that are sensitive to sleep, such as immunity or coping with stress. Because dark and pale melanic animals differentially regulate energy homeostasis, immunity and stress hormone levels, the amount and/or organization of sleep may covary with melanin-based colour. We show here that wild, cross-fostered nestling barn owls (Tyto alba) born from mothers displaying more black spots had shorter non-REM (rapid eye movement) sleep bouts, a shorter latency until the occurrence of REM sleep after a bout of wakefulness and more wakefulness bouts. In male nestlings, the same sleep traits also correlated with their own level of spotting. Because heavily spotted male nestlings and the offspring of heavily spotted biological mothers switched sleep-wakefulness states more frequently, we propose the hypothesis that they could be also behaviourally more vigilant. Accordingly, nestlings from mothers displaying many black spots looked more often towards the nest entrance where their parents bring food and towards their sibling against whom they compete. Owlets from heavily spotted mothers might invest more in vigilance, thereby possibly increasing associated costs due to sleep fragmentation. We conclude that different strategies of the regulation of brain activity have evolved and are correlated with melanin-based coloration.