Quick: if you saw all six of these animals scurry across your yard, would you know what each of them is?
If the answer is “no,” that’s nothing to be embarrassed about and doesn’t mean you’re uneducated. Believe it or not, the majority of people can’t tell these critters apart easily, particularly when the animal is very young, underweight, shedding, or has mange.
Misidentification of wild dogs can lead to problems and misconceptions. Every time For Fox Sake shares the information that an average red fox in Tennessee is 8-12 pounds– about the same size as most house cats– the statement is met with shock, disbelief, and even aggression. Nearly everyone swears they have seen foxes the size of German shepherds, and many will even share photos of coyotes as proof.
Misidentification has also led to some confusion when Good Samaritans call saying they have a “fox” that needs rescuing… when the fox turns out to be a coyote.
Here’s a quick overview that can help you correctly identify your backyard residents.
The Red Fox, Vulpes vulpes
This is probably the first image that comes to mind when you hear the word “fox.” The red fox is the most widely distributed member of the dog family in the world. Typically, red foxes weigh 8-12 pounds and are very tall and slim, with tails nearly as long as their bodies. Red foxes are built like mini greyhounds, but often have very thick fur, so they look bulkier than their actual size.
In general, red foxes have red fur with white markings under the chest, a white tip of the tail, black markings behind the ear tips, and black to dark brown “stockings.” However, red foxes have highly variable markings, so it’s often easiest to identify them by their build.
The Grey Fox, Urocyon cinsreoargenteus
Many people don’t even realize that this common, but elusive, animal lives in Tennessee! Grey foxes are the oldest surviving member of the dog family. The grey fox’s most distinct trait is its ability to climb trees, much like a cat. Their camouflage and tree-climbing abilities are among the reasons people rarely see them. If you see a small wild dog hanging out in a tree, there’s no doubt it’s a grey fox.
Grey foxes are built similarly to red foxes, but are often a little shorter and more muscular and weigh 8-10 pounds on average. Like red foxes, grey foxes have very long tails, nearly the same length as their bodies. A grey fox generally has grey fur on its back, tail, and face, with red-orange accents and white markings on the chest and belly, and a black stripe running down the spine. The backs of a grey fox’s ear tips are generally orange, and the tip of its tail is almost always black.
The Coyote, Canis latrans
Here in Tennessee– and elsewhere east is the Mississippi River— coyotes carry a significant amount of ancestry from wolves and domestic dogs. As a result, coyotes in Tennessee can have a wide variety of colors and patterns, often look distinctly wolf-like, and typically weigh 30-50 pounds.
Aside from these clear differences in size, coyotes generally have much shorter tails than foxes in proportion to their bodies. The tip of a coyote’s tail is usually black, but coyotes don’t generally have significant black markings elsewhere.
So who’s who in the six-critter image above? The top two are red foxes, middle two are grey foxes, and bottom two are coyotes.
Did you guess correctly?