Quality differences between offspring sired by the social and by an extra-pair partner are usually assumed to have a genetic basis, reflecting genetic benefits of female extra-pair mate choice. In the zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata), we identified a colour ornament that is under sexual selection and appears to have a heritable basis. Hence, by engaging in extra-pair copulations with highly ornamented males, females could, in theory, obtain genes for increased offspring attractiveness. Indeed, sons sired by extra-pair partners had larger ornaments, seemingly supporting the genetic benefit hypothesis. Yet, when comparing ornament size of the social and extra-pair partners, there was no difference. Hence, the observed differences most likely had an environmental basis, mediated, for example, via differential maternal investment of resources into the eggs fertilized by extra-pair and social partners. Such maternal effects may (at least partly) be mediated by egg size, which we found to be associated with mean ornament expression in sons. Our results are consistent with the idea that maternal effects can shape sexual selection by altering the genotype–phenotype relationship for ornamentation. They also caution against automatically attributing greater offspring attractiveness or viability to an extra-pair mate's superior genetic quality, as without controlling for differential maternal investment we may significantly overestimate the role of genetic benefits in the evolution of extra-pair mating behaviour.