To be fed, a king penguin, Aptenodytes patagonicus, chick must identify the call of its parents, in the continuous background noise of the colony. To study this recognition process, we played back to the chicks parental calls with acoustic parameters modified in the temporal and frequency domains. The parental call is composed of syllables (complex sounds with harmonic series) separated by pronounced amplitude declines. Our experiments with modified signals indicate that the chick's frequency analysis of the call is not tuned towards precise peak energy values, the signal being recognized even when the carrier frequency was shifted 100 Hz down or 75 Hz up. To recognize the adult, chicks used frequency rather than amplitude modulation, in particular the frequency modulation shape of the syllable. This structure is repeated through the different syllables of the call giving a distinct vocal signature. Our experiments also show that the receiver needs to perceive only a small part of the signal: the first half of the syllable (0.23 s) and the first three harmonics were sufficient to elicit recognition. The small amount of information necessary to understand the message, the high redundancy in the time and frequency domains and the almost infinite possibilities of coding provided by the frequency modulation signature permit the chick to recognize the adult, without the help of a nest site. For these reasons, the code used in the call of the king penguin can be regarded as a functional code, increasing the possibility of individual recognition in an acoustically constraining environment. Copyright 1999 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.