Fox or Coyote? How to Tell Them Apart

Most of us only ever catch fleeting glimpses of coyotes or foxes, and these brief encounters can leave us wondering what species we saw. Besides the domestic dog, our state hosts three members of the family Canidae, a word that comes from the Latin word for dog, “canis.” Here’s a primer on wild canines in the Commonwealth.

Red fox (Vulpes vulpes)

(c) Colleen Bruso

(c) Colleen Bruso

Of the three species, this is the one you’re most likely to see. A highly adaptable animal, it’s found across much of North America, Europe, and Asia, and survives well in built-up environments.

To identify a red fox, look for these characteristics:

  • Rusty red back and sides (though the coloration is variable and young pups are tan-colored)
  • Black ears
  • Black lower legs, as if it’s wearing dark stockings
  • A long tail, often nearly as long as the body, with a white tip

Gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus)

137LincolnClark3829

(c) Lincoln Clark

This amazing animal isn’t just a grey-colored red fox—it belongs to a different genus, or group in the animal family tree, and has some unusual traits. Like a cat, its nails are retractable, and it can climb trees and jump from branch to branch. It’s more rarely encountered because it doesn’t wander as much and tends to stick to its forest territory.

Here’s how to tell you’re looking at a gray fox:

  • Grizzly grey back (though reddish around the head and legs)
  • No black “stockings” as in the red fox
  • A black stripe that runs the length of the tail, and a black tail tip

Coyote (Canis latrans)

(c) Kristen Donovan

Adult coyotes are more than double the size of gray foxes, and coyotes in the eastern US tend to be bigger than those in the west. Evidence suggests that the coyote interbred with the eastern Canadian wolf as it spread into the northeast in the past century. The resulting animal is larger than the western coyote, and has some wolf-like characteristics, including smaller ears and longer legs.

However, it’s still much smaller than the wolf, which was wiped out in Massachusetts by the early 19th century. The coyote is very adaptable and can be found in developed areas, but tends to be shy and elusive.

Here’s how to identify a coyote:

  • Color varies greatly but is usually gray to cinnamon gray
  • Heavy build
  • Long legs
  • A relatively short, dark-tipped tail that hangs down when it runs

Learn more about coyotes on our Nature and Wildlife pages, and share your wild canine sightings with us here and on our Facebook page.

23 thoughts on “Fox or Coyote? How to Tell Them Apart

  1. Julie

    Oh, sorry, it’s me again, the residential street is in a suburb of Chicago. About a half hour from the heart of downtown!

    Reply
  2. Julie

    Thank you! This was very helpful and quite informative, I just saw a red fox in mid afternoon on a residential street! I hope the little guy gets back to his hiding place safely, but he sure was amazing to see!

    Reply
  3. Judy

    A fox or coyote? First I saw 4 small grey pups I thought were kittens but had shorter tails then the mother which was short grey with red and black colors dark legs pointed ears. I live in the country and have all kinds of wildlife Just wondering which one were they fox or coyotes??

    Reply
  4. Steve Paulo

    We see Coyotes quite often in the field behind my house in Bradford NH. I finally saw a Red Fox this morning. Had a beautiful white tipped tail, and definitely smaller then the coyotes.

    Reply
      1. guillermo

        The origin comes from the nahuatl language, the ancient Aztecs called these animals “coyotl”. There are plenty of word that include the name of coyotes in that language, such as Nezahualcoyotl, Coyoacan, etc.

        Reply
  5. David Brown

    I have a pair of coyotes that had pups behind my house. They aren’t scared of me. I don’t leave my 5 year old alone but should i be worried ?

    Reply
    1. Hillary

      Although wild animals prefer to avoid humans, the young take a while to develop this caution, so it isn’t worrisome that the pups aren’t scared of you. The parents are very protective of their young and will definitely be aggressive if they feel their young are jeopardized, so be sure to give them plenty of space. You may want to stick to the front yard for the time being. This is a great opportunity to watch behavior from inside the house, and we hope you’ll send photos! More information on coyotes here: http://www.massaudubon.org/learn/nature-wildlife/mammals/coyotes/about

      Reply
    2. Eddy

      Yes stay away from them and definitely keep your child away from them they carry lots of diseases especially in their feces they are very dirty animal

      Reply
  6. Kayleigh Brown

    We recently found a baby animal we had no idea what it was. We thought it was a badger with its puged nose and rat like body. It was ecxremly fluffy. It has a white tipped longish tail. And a winish cry that occasionaly turns into a deep bark. We’re guessing it’s a about a week old since its eyes are barely opened. We found it next to a fox den and my dad even claims he saw a fox close to it that got killed by are gaurd dogs. I have plenty of pics and videos of ” Tod” after Tod from fox and the hound, I even have videos of its barks if necessary. We’ve had people, professionals, say fox and others say Coyotoe. I’m still confused so if someone could please give me their opinion that would be great! Thanks!

    Reply
  7. emily

    had few coyotes in the backyard making all sorts of yipping noises a few weeks ago, made sure the cat stayed n

    also we get both red foxes and gray foxes at work. The gray ones are quite pretty

    Reply
      1. Emily Curewitz

        according to Wikipedia, the word coyote is a Spanish variant of a Nahuatl (Aztec) word coyotl, for the animal

        Reply

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