Is that a fox or coyote? How to tell what’s really in your backyard — and why

·12 min read

Barely a week goes by lately that a neighbor doesn’t mention seeing a fox or coyote in their yard — sometimes it’s a fleeting glimpse in person, but more often an image captured by a security camera.

Sometimes, a lengthy debate follows about which kind of four-legged visitor the person actually saw.

Was it actually a coyote? Nah, looks a little small ... probably a fox. But wait, maybe not? It can sometimes be hard to tell, especially if we’re seeing the animal from a distance, or scrutinizing a grainy video image taken at night.

And while we’re debating coyote vs. fox, we wonder what makes them come into our yards to start with. And it sure seems like there might be more around now than in years past, but who’s to say?

Raleigh Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin even mentioned coyotes at a recent Raleigh City Council meeting.

“We are still dealing with coyotes. I am still getting messages from neighbors who are not satisfied with the response they have gotten so far,” Baldwin said. “So, city manager, I am asking we just continue to meet with the neighbors on this issue and also the state. The state needs too also needs to have a role in this. I know they are saying nothing can be done, but people are walking their dogs. Leaving their homes with their kids in the morning to see a coyote lying there is pretty scary. Just ask we continue those conversations.”

Roland Kays is the person who can speak on all of this. Kays is a scientist at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh. We asked him all the questions we could think of about foxes and coyotes.

Here’s what he we learned about distinguishing the animals from each other, and why they love hanging out in our backyards. (While we had him on the phone, we tossed in some questions about bobcats and black bears.)

Is that a fox or a coyote?

When trying to figure out if you’re seeing a coyote or fox in your backyard — whether you just caught a fleeting glimpse or you have an image saved from surveillance camera, here are the things to consider.

How big is the critter? Size matters, when trying to distinguish between a coyote and a fox. “Obviously, the coyote is going to be much bigger, but sometimes size is hard to judge,” said Kays.

Coyotes are significantly heavier than foxes, said Kays, but they can also look bigger than they actually are.

Kays says that many people will estimate a coyote to weigh 50 pounds, based on sight when compared to some dogs. But coyotes actually weigh about 35 pounds, he said.

“Coyotes are just built differently,” he said. “They’re skinnier than they look, just fluffier.”

An adult fox, on the other hand, will weigh from around 8 to 15 pounds.

What color is the critter? Coyotes are colored differently than foxes, especially on their legs. They don’t have the dark legs, or socks, that foxes have.

But, coyote colors can vary.

“Every once in a while you get really strange colored coyotes,” said Kays. “They could be black, they could be white, they could be red. But on average, they’re just kinda gray. So they don’t have the coloring, typically, of a red fox or gray fox.”

How bushy is the tail? Coyote tails are, in proportion to the body size, relatively smaller than a fox’s tail. Kays compares a coyote tail to the tail of a Husky dog.

Look that critter right in the face. The face should tell you everything, said Kays.

“The coyote has a more wolf-like face,” he said. “It’s just a different profile on the face. If I just see the head of one of these animals, I can tell them apart.”

But could it be a pup? Another potential obstacle in distinguishing a fox from a coyote comes when you consider a coyote pup. “Red Fox and coyote pups do look super similar,” said Kays. “They do get mixed up as pups but grow up to be quite different.”

A coyote photographed with a trap camera in central North Carolina.
A coyote photographed with a trap camera in central North Carolina.

What kind of fox is that?

So you’ve maybe decided the animal you’re seeing in your backyard is a fox and not a coyote, but what kind of fox is it? In North Carolina, you’re either seeing a red fox or a gray fox, which are both about the same size. Here’s how you tell them apart.

What’s the color of that fox? The obvious answer would be that the red fox is red (or orange) and the gray fox is gray.

However, foxes are tricky, and the gray fox will still have some red on it, says Kays, usually up around its neck.

But mostly, a gray fox is gray and the red fox has much more of the red (or orange) fur.

Granted, if you’re looking at photos or videos from camera trap, the color of the fox may not be clear at all. So then you should ...

Check out the socks on that fox. “The one thing that really stands out on the red fox is the dark black legs, like the socks or stockings,” said Kays. “If you see dark stockings like that, you know it’s a red fox.”

Look at the tip of that fox’s tail. If you can get a good look at the fox, look at its tail: the very tip of the red fox’s tail is usually white, and the gray fox will have a black-tipped tail.

How fluffy is that fox’s tail? The fluffier the tail, the more likely it’s a red fox.

“Sometimes the red fox tails are just enormous,” said Kays. “They are so bushy. It looks really like a bottlebrush tail. Gray foxes have fluffy tails, but they don’t get that fluffy on the gray fox.”

How long is that fox’s tail? While the red fox might win the fluffy tail contest, the gray fox would win for length. Their tails are quite long. Kays notes that since gray foxes are good at climbing trees, the long tail might help them balance.

What big ears that fox has. Both the red fox and gray fox have big ears, but the red fox ears are a little bigger.

A red fox photographed with a trap camera in central North Carolina.
A red fox photographed with a trap camera in central North Carolina.

When are you most likely to see a fox or coyote?

With both foxes and coyotes, you’ll most often see them during evening or nighttime hours, but they can be active at any time.

“They are mostly nocturnal, but either can be out during the day,” said Kays. “So if you see one during the day, it’s not like, ‘oh my God, this animal has rabies.’ It’s a little unusual, but it happens.”

Where will you see foxes and coyotes?

While you might see both animals in a yard or neighborhood, foxes tend to venture closer to people and to houses, and the coyotes are more often out in or near the woods, Kays said.

In part, said Kays, the fox’s proximity to people might be to help avoid the coyotes, because coyotes will harass and kill the foxes if they can.

“The foxes are really common in peoples’ backyards, but usually at night, so you don’t see them,” he said, unless you have a trap or trail camera, or some other kind of security camera.

“I have noticed that the gray foxes will avoid the light, even like a back porch light or a flash on a camera,” said Kays. “They will learn to avoid that and stay in the shadows.”

A gray fox photographed with a trap camera in central North Carolina.
A gray fox photographed with a trap camera in central North Carolina.

Why are foxes and coyotes coming to our yards?

Foxes and coyotes are after one thing: their next meal.

If your yard offers tasty options, you’re more likely to see a fox or coyote around.

“Some people feed animals outside,” said Kays. “Some people feed deer or cats, so they will be looking for that food if it’s available.”

They will also sometimes get into compost piles, but for the most part, they are not garbage can raiders like raccoons or bears, said Kays.

Do you have a lot of rabbits and squirrels around? Or maybe the better question is, did you have a lot of rabbits and squirrels around? Foxes and coyotes love to eat rabbits, and foxes will also eat squirrels. (Kays says coyotes can’t catch squirrels).

“If you throw out some watermelon in your compost pile they’ll go chew on it, but mostly they are hunting rabbits and squirrels and other animals like that,” Kays said.

You may see more foxes around your home this season in NC. Here’s why and what to do

Will foxes and coyotes hurt my pets?

Kays said that foxes won’t come after cats and dogs, but coyotes will kill small dogs and cats.

A cat can outrun a coyote “for a short spurt,” Kays said.

“If they’re in the backyard and a coyote shows up, the cat can probably make it to the cat door or dive under the porch. But if they are out further from the house, they’re going to be in trouble.”

Are we seeing more foxes and coyotes than normal?

If we just went by reports on Facebook and NextDoor, it would seem that foxes and coyotes are taking over the town, but Kays says there isn’t much evidence to suggest there are a lot more coyotes or foxes around compared to the past year or two.

Many of us are at home more, he noted, and noticing the wildlife in our yards more. Also, more of us are using some sort of surveillance cameras these days.

“Ring cameras are definitely helping people notice things that they didn’t notice before, but were still there,” Kays said.

There are also a lot more animals in suburban areas than in rural areas, according to a report.

“They’re getting a lot of resources, taking advantage of food that people put out, eating squirrels and rabbits,” Kays said. “If they could figure out how to avoid roads, suburban areas would be a pretty good place for them.”

But in very general terms, it is safe to say that the coyote population is growing. There are certainly more coyotes here now than there were 10 years ago, said Kays.

In fact, coyotes are relatively new to North Carolina (there were no coyotes here even 50 years ago), as they have migrated from the west as the wolf population declined in North Carolina.

How do you get rid of coyotes?

Having a lot of coyotes living close to people isn’t an ideal situation, but the only solution to having fewer coyotes, Kays said, is to have more wolves (and that might create a whole new set of backyard problems).

But as for right now, in the Triangle, coyotes are at the top of the four-legged food chain.

What about the bobcats and bears we see in the news?

Ever so often we see news reports of bears on the loose in Raleigh, and so far this year, we’ve seen two stories of people being attacked by bobcats — one in Moore County, in June; and one in Pender County, in April.

That’s unusual, said Kays.

Bobcats, for example, would not be very common in the Triangle at all.

“Generally in North Carolina, where people are common, bobcats are not,” said Kays. “We get them in our cameras in the Triangle area occasionally, but not very often. They do great in the mountains, they do great on the coast — just not as great near people.”

So in this area, at least, that critter lurking in your backyard is unlikely to be a bobcat.

And when bobcats have encounters with people, like the recent attacks that made the news, the animal is usually rabid, he said.

But what about the recent reports of young bears spotted in Raleigh?

They don’t really live here, Kays said, they’re just teenagers passing through.

Most North Carolina bears are in the eastern part of the state, in the mountain areas, or up nearer Virginia — and those populations are growing.

And bears do wander.

“Every year there are some teenagers who go looking for territory and they wander the wrong way and if there are no girl bears there, they just keep going,” Kays said. “But they do get noticed.”

Where they’re coming from or where they’re going to, we don’t know. Heck, even the bears don’t know where they’re going, Kays said.

“They just know they can’t stay home because mom kicked them out, and they’re looking for a new territory and they just keep walking.”

What do I do if I see a coyote or fox (or bobcat or bear) in my yard?

Kays cautions that if you begin to see coyotes coming around regularly, then that might be a source of concern. For instance, if you’re feeding animals outside at night, then you might want to stop.

“Coyotes are typically shy, and that’s a good thing,” Kays said. “If people start feeding them they’ll lose that fear of people and that will be a bad thing. We don’t want coyotes to become habituated to people and start looking for food in back yards. They aren’t super dangerous, but they are potentially dangerous.”

But generally speaking, if you see a wild animal in your yard, Kays advises that you take a picture and appreciate the animal, but don’t try to get close.

“It’s a wild animal, so you want to enjoy them from a distance,” he said.

“Enjoy the interaction and be happy that we live in a city that has some healthy wildlife population. They don’t need your petting, they don’t need your feeding — let the wild animals be wild animals.”