Good Natured Update: Coyotes Outnumber Red Foxes

Good Natured Update: Coyotes Outnumber Red Foxes

  • Editor’s Note: This bonus good-natured column is courtesy of Pam Otto, manager of nature programs and interpretive services at the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, a facility of the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or

If you’re a nature lover, you probably look forward each week to the “Good Natured” column by Hickory Knolls Manager Pam Otto. The popular column generally appears on the blog on Fridays and in the e-newsletter on Mondays.

Today, we have a little bonus for you, after an email exchange between loyal reader Lyle Rolfe and our good-natured Otto.

Rolfe offered this musical question, without the music, in an email response to a post headlined, “Good Natured: Red Foxes Moving Into Residential Neighborhoods“:

Pam, can you please explain the difference between the red fox and the coyote, as well as the difference in their typical living areas, their food, and their fear or non-fear of humans as well as how often each one can be seen in Kane County and by how much one outnumbers the other?

Thanks, Lyle R. Rolfe in Aurora.   

Pam, the consummate overachiever, came up with the following “A”:

Hi Lyle,

Rick Nagel at Kane County Connects forwarded your questions to me. I’ve cut and pasted them into this email so I can be sure to address each one.

Pam, can you please explain the difference between the red fox and the coyote?

Red Fox

Both belong to Canidae, the dog family, but they are members of different genera. Coyotes are Canis latrans, foxes are Vulpes vulpes.

Size is one big difference between the two. Coyotes range up to 35 or even 40 pounds, while foxes tend to be in the 20s. Of course, there can be small coyotes and large foxes, so then we look at other details.

Both have bushy tails (unless they’ve got mange), but the red fox’s tail is tipped in white (unless something happens to it). They also have white on their chin and chest, and the rest of their body is a rusty red.

Coyotes, by contrast, are more of a dusky tan color. Again, there’s a lot of individual variation, with some foxes looking browner and some coyotes having a reddish tinge.

In winter, both animals grow thick coats, which makes them appear larger.

What’s the difference in their typical living areas?

Habitat requirements are similar for both. They like open fields for hunting/foraging and woodland edges for shelter.

Coyote pups

They both have adapted well to neighborhoods, but in my experience foxes are more likely to den (have their pups) under porches/decks/sheds, while coyotes still prefer to den in natural areas away from houses.

That may be different for the urban coyotes in Chicago. Also, coyotes do frequent neighborhoods (1) on garbage pickup days and (2) when they are patrolling their territory during courtship and mating (which is now through, say, March or so.)

We will probably soon be hearing about coyotes attacking pets, especially dogs. It’s important to remember that coyotes view any sort of canine as potential competition for territory.

They might go after a cocker spaniel, not because it looks tasty, but because they think it could be a threat to their offspring.

What do they eat?

Both are generally considered carnivores, but in summer their diets include a fair amount of plant material, namely fruits like berries, apples and plums.

Both also prey on mice and voles primarily, but will take larger prey like rabbits, too. What I’ve lately been puzzled by is, why, when we have a pretty stable population of foxes and coyotes, and hawks and owls, do we also have so many rabbits?

Maybe future column fodder. Also, since most people want to know, a coyote will eat an adult cat, but I don’t think a fox would.

Do they fear humans?

There’s again a lot of individual variation here. Some animals who are born and raised near people have little fear. Or maybe I should say they have a lot of tolerance.

If a person were to approach a coyote or a fox who was used to living among humans, the animal would back down and leave. Where conflicts tend to arise is when the animal is being fed by humans. Coyotes in particular can get very protective of food sources.

Both species, by the way, are innately curious, and will sit and watch people. There are even stories from some of our neighbors about fox kits playing with dog toys.

How often can each one be seen in Kane County?

It’s not too hard to spot a coyote in Kane County, especially if you’re out and about around dusk or dawn and especially, as mentioned previously, if it’s garbage day.

Garbage day, and the night before, tend to bring out all sorts of critters — opossums, raccoons, skunks, too. I guess all those smells are irresistible.

The trash haulers’ recent switch to big toters with lids may curb this behavior some, but I think that garbage night will always be a good time to go looking for suburban wildlife. Foxes, being a little more elusive, may or may not be seen at these times.

You can also look for either species in open fields as you’re out and about. Their peak activity times are still dusk and dawn but plenty of healthy animals will go out hunting in the daytime.

How much does one outnumber the other?

This is a great question, Lyle!

I don’t have any firm numbers, but have a feeling that coyotes outnumber foxes. The problem with that assumption is that foxes are harder to spot, at least around here.

The reason I feel that way is that coyotes are the more dominant of the two. They will challenge foxes and chase them off if they want to claim a spot as their own.

And I’ve run into way more coyotes than foxes when I’m out rambling around.

Lyle, I hope you find this info helpful. Please let me know if you have other questions.

And thanks for being a Good Natured reader!

Read More on Coyotes

If you’re interested in learning more about coyotes, there’s a fabulous research project that’s been going on in the Chicago area for close to 20 years now, the Urban Coyote Research Project.

The neat thing about it is that it is funded by a portion of the rabies tag fees in Cook County, so it has a continual source of revenue. Most other studies stop after a few years, after the graduate students earn their degrees or the corporation funding it gets the answers they want.

At any rate, the researchers are continually expanding their knowledge about coyotes. I only wish there was a similar study going on for foxes! Here is a link to the coyote research website.

Read More Good Natured Stories!

More On Coyotes