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)
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)
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)
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