The two most widespread canids (wild dogs) in North America today, red foxes and coyotes, cross paths from the subtropical scrub of Florida to the boreal woods of Alaska. It doesn’t take much know-how to learn how to distinguish the two cousins in the field, given some prominent differences in physical appearance and stature. The two overlap extensively in terms of ecology and behavior, and may directly compete with one another; the coyote isn't above snuffing out its smaller relative, either.
Coyotes can significantly outweigh red foxes. A coyote in western North America may weigh 20 or 30 pounds, while the somewhat heftier animals of the Midwest and especially the Northeast may tip the scales at more than 50 pounds. A typical red fox, by contrast, might be 10 or 15 pounds. The fox – overall a more catlike creature than the coyote – boasts a longer and bushier tail as well as proportionately shorter legs and larger ears, and has a slimmer, daintier muzzle.
Coyotes usually wear a tawny, grizzled brown or gray coat, although individuals of eastern populations sometimes appear black or dark-mottled, likely due to interbreeding with dogs. The red fox gets its name from its distinctive orange-brown or reddish fur, but several alternative color morphs commonly exist: the black or “silver fox” and the boldly patterned “cross fox.” It often has black teardrop facial markings, black-rimmed ears and black legs with a white tail tip.
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Red foxes and coyotes show many similarities in the dietary department, both being opportunistic omnivores – less carnivorous than their hulking relative the gray wolf, and certainly less so than the wild cats they compete with. Small mammals and insects provide mainstay sustenance for both, supplemented with fare such as berries, fruits, birds, snakes, lizards and carrion. Snowshoe hares, jackrabbits and grouse typically constitute the largest prey a red fox will tackle, although it occasionally kills deer fawns. Coyotes, particularly when hunting in pairs or packs, will aim larger, taking down adult deer and even, occasionally, elk.
Ecologically speaking, red foxes and coyotes are “mesopredators,” occupying middle levels of the food chain and vulnerable to occasional predation by larger carnivores, especially wolves and pumas. (Coyotes will readily kill foxes, which are also sometimes preyed upon by bobcats, golden eagles and the odd great-horned owl.) But where those bigger meat-eaters have been extirpated (regionally killed off), as in much of the eastern U.S., coyotes may assume the role of top predator in the ecosystem.
Both canids inhabit a wide range of habitats, but red foxes, which especially flourish in mosaics of forest and meadow, being regular prowlers of the productive “edge” zones in between, generally shun the wide-open steppes and deserts readily roamed by coyotes, as well as swift and kit foxes.
Coyotes are more social than red foxes, often living together in the extended family groups called packs. They exhibit a rich vocal repertoire that includes their iconic yappy howling – higher-pitched and more whooping than the deep, sustained howl of a gray wolf – which lends them the nickname “songdogs.” North American red foxes are generally more solitary, though mated males (dog foxes) and females (vixens) maintain territories and rear kits together, and occasionally non-breeding vixens assist in caring for young. Though they don’t howl, red foxes make their own diverse array of sounds, from warning barks to friendly whines.
In the form of a variety of subspecies, the red fox occupies a vast range encompassing much of Eurasia, North America and North Africa. Coyotes, by contrast, are endemic to North and Central America; they've dramatically expanded their turf in the eastern U.S. and Canada over the past century or so. Scientists haven't yet resolved the taxonomic relationship between so-called "eastern coyotes," which include varying admixtures of dog and wolf genes, and western coyotes. The two species share much of their North American range, though the red fox is absent from most of the American Southwest and parts of the Intermountain West.