Friday, March 19, 2021

Is That An Island Fox? Identifying North American Foxes

Fox species overlap in many parts of North America, which can make it difficult to distinguish one species from the next. In California alone, there are four fox species:

The last three occur only on the mainland. If you are fortunate to see a small to medium canid in the field, you should ask yourself a few questions to aid in identification:

fox silhouette


coyote silhouette

1. Is it a coyote or a fox? 

Coyotes now inhabit most of North America, but they are typically larger than foxes and appear more dog-like with a larger face. The coyote tail is also shorter for their body than a fox's. While most foxes have distinct color markings to aid in identification, coyotes do not.

If it is a fox: 

2. Start with the tip of the tail:

White tail tip: Probably a red fox. Even if the fur coloring is not red or cinnamon, a fox with a white-tipped tail is a red fox.  The image to the right shows a "silver fox," an almost black-colored fox with white-tipped guard hairs beside a red fox. Both show a white tail tip. 

The silver fox is a color phase of the red fox (Vulpes vulpes). Most foxes used in the fur trade are red foxes. They are bred for various colorations. (FIF's red fox pelts are used in education. The silver fox pelt was rescued from a 1940s coat and the wild red fox was a car strike victim in 2005.)


gray fox; ancestor of the island fox

Black tail tip:

With a black stripe all the way down the back - you are looking at a gray fox. (If you are on the Channel Islands, it's an island fox.)

island fox on Catalina Island


kit fox; courtesy of K. Schafer

Just a black tail tip: Consider your location.

The Gemini foxes, the kit fox and the swift fox, seldom overlap in range. If you are located in parts of New Mexico and adjacent parts of Texas, big ears will separate the kit fox from the swift fox. In general, understanding the habitat where you see the fox will provide a clue as to the species you're observing.

No, definitive tail tip coloration: Arctic fox

Arctic foxes are easy to identify by their white coat in winter or their compact body size with small rounded ears and no contrasting marks on the tail.

Use this downloadable Identifying the Foxes of North America chart to help you know your local foxes. 

In this series of posts, we only touched the basics for each of the species covered. A list of research used in writing this project can be found at the end of each post. These resources are a great starting point for more information about the foxes that may live in your area. In addition, reading the abstracts of research articles provides wonderful insights into the latest information regarding a particular species. While the thought of wading through heavy scientist language may make your head spin, the abstract's concise language will slow that spin, allowing you the opportunity to glean useful information to assist in the better understanding of the fox you're interested in. It will also help sort fox fact from fiction.

Thank you to FIF Board Members - Mike Watling and Lara Brenner for this series on North American Foxes.

Series installments:

How is the Island Fox Unique?

Red Fox: Life on the Edge

Gemini Foxes: Kit Fox and Swift Fox

Arctic Fox: Fox of the Tundra

The Island Fox's Origin - The Gray Fox