SAMUEL: Is it a red or gray fox?

Three friends and/or neighbors told me they’ve seen foxes in our area in the past month. Two were positive they were red foxes and their description convinced me they saw red foxes. The third thought that she saw a den of gray foxes, based on the color of the kits (young foxes are called kits). I think she was right as well.

Let’s be clear on what foxes we have living in West Virginia and the Morgantown area. We have both red and gray (sometimes spelled “grey” in the literature). The confusion when seeing a fox is because red foxes have some gray color and gray foxes have some reddish color. And both species can be seen in the same area.

Red foxes are predominantly red and have a white-tipped tail. Their legs are dark in color, some say black, described as “black boots.” However, they may have a gray tinge on the back and head area. Gray foxes are predominantly gray and have a black-tipped tail. However, they have a fair amount of reddish fur in the neck and head area. There is also a small stripe of black hair that runs along the middle of its tail.

Body-wise, the red fox is more slender, and lankier than the gray fox. Though both species can be seen in fields and forests, red fox habitat is more open, with old fields and grass, while gray fox tend to live in and around forested areas. In the eastern United States, the gray fox was once the dominant species, but red foxes do better around urban areas and human habitation. Deforestation occurs where humans live and thus, we are seeing more red foxes in the eastern part of the country. From a numbers standpoint, in most areas, red foxes are now more common than gray foxes.

The gray fox tends to den in hollow trees, stumps or appropriated burrows. They also have strong claws that allow it to scramble up trees to escape predators or dogs. If a tree has a slant to it, gray foxes can climb as high as 20 to 30 feet.

Both species breed once a year in the spring and both have litters from four to six kits. Both have similar food habits, but gray foxes eat more fruit and vegetable matter than red foxes. Of course both species eat meat, though it seems that gray foxes take more cottontails than red foxes do, and reds take more field mice than grays.

There isn’t much literature or studies supporting the idea that red foxes, gray foxes, and coyotes have diets that overlap much, and little support for the idea that one species outcompetes another species. It appears that although the coyote is bigger and population numbers are increasing, reds and grays have figured this all out and seem to stay out of the way of coyotes. (My choice of words). In other words, all three species are found in our area, and the presence of coyotes has not appeared to cause lower numbers of red or gray foxes.

One common myth is that the species hybridize and that is why the grays have some red color and the reds have some gray color. The truth is that they do not hybridize. If you see a red fox mating with a gray fox or vice versa, then you are really seeing foxes of the same species mating. Grays do not mate reds and reds do not mate grays. Nor does either sex breed with dogs.