Wild Ideas: Red fox, gray fox

A red fox confronts a gray fox.
A red fox confronts a gray fox. Courtesy USFWS

I awoke one morning recently just as the first light of dawn was starting to give form to the forest surrounding my yard. In looking out the window, I could barely make out in the dim light the slender shape of an animal moving around in the yard. It would walk quickly a few steps, then put its nose down and stare at the ground, then move on — obviously on the hunt.

At first I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. A bit larger than a domestic cat, the animal had a long, somewhat bushy tail and a pointed nose. But it was more its demeanor that tipped me to its identity — a fox. It seemed dark, mostly black or gray, but as the light grew, I thought I saw a hint of red around its head.

There are two species of fox in our area — our native gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), and the red fox (Vulpes vulpes), which is in another genus and whose origin is somewhat contested. What is clear is that the latter, bold by nature, is crowding out the shyer gray. And distinguishing one species from the other is not as easy as their common names imply.

The red fox actually is not always red. It has three other main color morphs, or phases — “melanistic,” where the fur is black; “silver,” where the fur is black with white tips; and “cross,” where the fur is red with black across the shoulders and back. (See the various color morphs at livingwithfoxes.weebly.com/colour-morphs.html.) In the cross phase, particularly, the red fox is more likely to be confused with the gray, which also can have both gray and red fur.

Each fox species has other identification points beyond its overall color. The gray fox typically has a black stripe running down the top side of its tail, and the tip of the tail is usually gray, while the tail tip of of the red is usually white. Gray foxes also have shorter muzzles and ears than the reds, giving the latter an overall impression of being slimmer. And the red is larger — in fact, the largest species of fox, according to ARKive, which has lots of great photos of foxes.

Red fox or gray fox? Rappahannock resident Don Audette spotted this beautiful fox near his house in F.T. Valley, but sorting out which species it is took several experts.
Red fox or gray fox? Rappahannock resident Don Audette spotted this beautiful fox near his house in F.T. Valley, but sorting out which species it is took several experts. Don Audette | Rappahannock News

I remembered a photo a friend, Don Audette, had sent me that he’d taken at his place in F.T. Valley a couple of years ago. At the time, I thought that fox, with its coloring and slim build, was a cross-phase red. But now, revisiting the finer points of fox ID, I decided I should get some expert help, so I sent the photo to Ron Hughes, a biologist at the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries whom I often consult with mammal issues.

While acknowledging that the gray fox tends to be stockier in build, with shorter legs than the one in the photo, Ron wrote back that “there is variation,” particularly in cold weather, when the coat on either species may be thicker. He added that he’d seen “pretty lanky gray foxes.”

Ron pointed out several other features that helped in his identifying the fox in the photo, starting with the muzzle: The black pattern on the muzzle of the fox in the photo extends down to the lower jaw (the “mustache”), which is common with the red. He then noted the tail color: dark on top, with no white apparent on the tip. The tail-tip color, while “not definitive in all cases,” is “strongly expressed” in reds, he wrote, and “the black dorsal line and black tip on the tail is pretty definitive” in grays. He added that the muzzle on the fox in the picture looks “kind of stubby,” shorter than he would expect for a red fox.

After all that, Ron acknowledged that all these ID points are not always clearly expressed. “I may be completely wrong,” he wrote. “This is a tough one!!” To be sure about the species, he contacted three biologists with “good mammal ID skills.” He wrote back in a couple of days that all three experts agreed that the fox in the photo was “indeed a gray fox . . . pretty much without question.”

The red fox is taking over the gray fox’s territory in Virginia.
The red fox is taking over the gray fox’s territory in Virginia. Courtesy USFWS

Even after seeing many foxes, and staring at photographs of both species, I still have trouble telling them apart. While side-by-side, it may be much easier, seeing them together would be a rare event, so I finally pretty much gave up on the specific ID points and tried to get an overall impression of each species. I used a couple of techniques I find useful in tracking, where a pattern may not be obvious. The first technique is soft-focusing your eyes, allowing your peripheral vision to help. The other technique closing your eyes and opening them, absorbing your first impression. Both techniques also work with those 3D pictures that were the rage not long ago, where the design was not readily apparent. In trying both pattern-recognition methods, I got the impression that the gray’s head was a bit rounder, the face a bit smaller and the muzzle a bit shorter and blunter than the red’s, and the same was true in the fox in Don’s photo . . . or I’d just projected Ron’s answer onto the photo.

So what about the fox I’d seen recently? I thought at the time that it could either be a gray or a cross-phase red. With the overall impression I got that the fox was also slim, from tail to muzzle, and knowing that reds are more common, I’m inclined to think it was a red. Still . . .

The only time I’ll feel sure about whether a fox I see is a red or gray is if it’s up a tree: gray foxes have strong claws that help them climb trees and red foxes don’t. Before the light increased enough for me to get a better look at the fox I’d seen, it suddenly quit hunting and trotted up into the tangle of brush and saplings at the forest edge.

Red fox: ‘been-here’ or ‘come-here’?

Wild red fox with prey.
Wild red fox with prey. Courtesy USFWS

There is some question whether red foxes are native to North America. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, one hypothesis is that red foxes were native to North America north of latitude 40 degrees (north), “but were scarce or absent in most of the vast hardwood forests where common gray foxes . . . were abundant.” Another hypothesis, says USFWS, is that the North American red fox originated from the European red fox, which was introduced into the southeastern section of the United States around 1750. The red “may have interbred with the scarce indigenous population to produce a hybrid population.” There are 10 subspecies of red fox, according to USFWS.

What records show is that some European red foxes were imported to the colonies by Europeans who liked to hunt foxes by horseback. Perhaps they found them easier to hunt by horseback because the red is more comfortable in open country. The gray, on the other hand, is better adapted to forest, which covered most eastern part of what is now the United States until humans arrived. And perhaps its having evolved in forested country is why the gray developed the claws that enable it to take refuge from terrestrial predators by climbing to a low branch of a tree.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 341 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”