Red Fox

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.

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

  1. Martha A

    07-02-2020
    Last week I saw an animal run across the road and I am not sure what it was. At first, I thought it was a fox: pointy nose, upright pointed ears, brushy tail with a white tip. However, its back didn’t look long enough and its legs looked too long. I couldn’t get an accurate take on its colors because the sun was shining directly on the animal. It looked tan or even golden to me. It ran with its tail straight out until it got to the other side of the highway, then it put its head up, slowed down and sort of pranced like a dog! So I think it was a young animal. It looked smaller and slimmer than my 25lb terrier mix dog. Fox, do you think?

    Reply
  2. Phyllis A Zygmont

    We just saw what appeared to be a very large red fox in our yard — it was about 11:00 in the morning. Is this unusual for a fox to be out and about at this time of the day? I live in South Carolina near Lake Hartwell on the SC – Georgia border.

    Reply
  3. Laura Owens

    I live in central Illinois. Neighbors have said there are coyotes ‘across the tracks’ where there’s a creek and lots of trees. I’ve heard howling before at night. Today I was outside with my dog (120# mutt) when she took off like a bat out of *O^%. She’s old and has never done this before. I’m disabled so had trouble getting far.There’s a cornfield across the street (and a german shepherd which had just gone inside, our dogs were playing together just minutes before this happened.) My dog has spotted a fox or coyote about halfway across the field (no crop, it’s winter) and was chasing it. Thank God she stopped at the end of the field, and this other animal ran across the road back to the RR tracks where it stood there for several minutes just staring at us. I was surprised at how small it was, When my dog was close to it, I realized she was at least twice the size of this animal. This animal was red. Don’t remember the tail or any markings, but I was in shock, standing in the middle of the street yelling at my dog for fear of the cars or a fight with this animal. Everyone says coyotes, but it was red and small. Any ideas?

    Reply
  4. Nialani

    I saw a animal that had different color fur such as like a red kind of cooper color, black, and brown with a white tipped tail and I don’t know if it was a baby coyote or baby fox. Would anyone know what it is?

    Reply
  5. Jan

    In Hinckley OH MetroPark today, I saw something very dark in color, like deep gray— around knee level or a bit higher. It was running because I had my dogs with me. (No, I did not let my pooches chase him/her!)

    I’ve heard coyotes in the area, but this color was quite dark.

    Any thoughts on what this might have been?

    Thanks—
    Jan

    Reply
  6. Lisa

    can foxes and coyote inter-breed. I am getting some really tall foxes with no bushy tail in Woodbridge, VA

    Reply
    1. Ryan

      The species Coyote are Canis Latrans. The Species fox are Vulpes Vulpes. Their total number of chromosomes are completely different in each species and thus 100% impossible to crossbreed.

      Reply
  7. 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
  8. 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
  9. 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
    1. Michael Arrowsmith

      Recently saw a pair of really distinctive animals on my street. I live in an urban forest area in Norther Ca. They were the size of a small foxes. Maybe 18″ at the shoulder. Very short coats. long legged compared to their total height at the shoulder. Black and brown combined fur with black the more dominant color. Pointed noses and slanted eyes. The most distinctive and, to me, the most distinctive trait was that as they trotted down the street they both carried their black bushy tails TOTALLY UPRIGHT the whole time. Their heads were also mostly in the upright position, but I am an amateur at this, so that may be normal. Too small to be Coyotes ? unless very young. Also the articles I just read said that Coyotes always carry their tails down. Do foxes ? Another point about the tails. They were not curled at all. the curve, if there even was one, was very very slight. Any ideas what the heck these critters were ?

      Reply
      1. Sharon

        I also live in northern CA, bay area, in a wooded suburb near open space. We’ve been visited this summer by 3 grey foxes. Caught sight of them on 3 occasions. An amazing treat. Got to see one slide down the play structure slide. I am confident of the identity due to a couple good looks at the black racing stripe down the grey tail. These 3 seem to hold their tails straight out behind them when they run. Definitely not straight upright.

        Reply
    2. Tom

      Red Foxes have reddish fur (more like reddish-brown) and black fur on legs and on the backside of the ears. Coyotes have tan legs and ears and are more than twice the weight of Red Foxes.

      Reply
  10. 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
  11. 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
  12. 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
  13. 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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