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Illinois Department of Natural Resources
August 2020
August 3, 2020

Coyotes Outnumber Red Foxes

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By Pam Otto

I received an email from Lyle Rolfe, Aurora, who asked the question:

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 Illinois and by how much one outnumbers the other?

My response was as follows:

What is the difference between the red fox and the coyote?

A red fox with a white tip on its tail stands at alert on a snowy hill. Snow is in the background.

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 less than 20 pounds. 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?

A brown and tan coyote stands alert in a grassland. Green tall grass is in the background.

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

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

That may be different for urban coyotes. Also, coyotes do frequent urban neighborhoods (1) on garbage pickup days and (2) when they are patrolling their territory during courtship and mating (which in Illinois is from January to March).

Two young red fox kits play next to reddish brown brick wall.

Although most coyotes avoid confrontations and people, occasionally individuals become emboldened and can cause concerns or problems for homeowners. Coyotes occasionally attack pets, especially small dogs. Coyotes can view any sort of canine as potential competition for territory, especially during breeding season and near dens with pups, and may act to defend ‘their’ turf. They might go after a medium sized dog, not because it looks tasty, but because they think it could be a threat to their offspring. If people have concerns about coyotes in their neighborhoods, they should read up on what behaviors to watch for and see what they can do to avoid conflicts, such as the information presented by the Urban Coyote Research Project. If individual coyote behaviors become problematic, they may need to consider removing problem individuals and can learn more about how to go about this on the ‘Get Help’ section of Wildlife Illinois.

A chart indicating different coyote behaviors and how humans should respond.
Chart courtesy of the Urban Coyote Research Project.

What do they eat?

Both are generally considered carnivores (meat eating), but in summer they cross over to an omnivorous diet, one that includes a fair amount of plant material, namely fruits, such as berries, apples and plums.

Both also prey on mice and voles primarily, but will take larger prey, such as rabbits and squirrels, too. What I have 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?

Do they fear humans?

There is a lot of individual variation here. Some animals 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 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.

A red fox lounges on a porch railing. In the background is a forest.

How often can each one be seen in Illinois?

It’s not too hard to spot a coyote in many areas of Illinois. Most often you’ll see more coyotes at dawn and dusk in fields, and most likely will hear more coyotes than you see. Based on Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) nuisance reports, red fox are more common in small towns, around farms and in suburban areas and seem to be fairly tolerant to some human activity, and, in general, people seem to be more tolerant of red fox than they are of coyotes.

Garbage day, and the night before, tend to bring out all sorts of critters—canids and opossums, raccoons and skunks, too. I guess all those smells are irresistible. Urban Coyote Research Project data show that garbage is not a primary coyote food source, but perhaps coyotes are seen on garbage pick-up day because their primary food source, rodents, may be more active on garbage day. To minimize coyotes in the neighborhood, minimize access to potential food sources, including garbage and pet food left outside. Never intentionally feed wildlife. 

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 are out and about. Their peak activity times are dusk and dawn but plenty of healthy animals will go out hunting in the daytime.

How much does one outnumber the other?

Based on the IDNR’s annual Archery Deer Hunter Survey data, coyotes outnumber foxes by a big margin. Over the last 10 years (2009 to 2018) across Illinois, archery deer hunters reported seeing an average of just over 36 coyotes for every 1,000 hours they were deer hunting. The same hunters reported seeing an average of just under 4 red fox per 1,000 hours during the same time frame. These surveys are not exact counts but do give you an idea of how many foxes and coyotes are seen in areas where deer hunters spend a lot of time.

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. This likely leads to foxes moving into areas that don’t have many coyotes, or at least into places where they can hide or escape from coyotes.

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

Read More on Coyotes

A brown and tan coyote in a snowy landscape walks through a grove of pine trees.

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.

Additional information on both species also is available at Wildlife Illinois.


The images is a logo for St. Charles Park District. The logo has a person riding a bicycle on top of a leaf which is all over waves at the bottom of the graphic. Three flying birds are in the background at the top.

Pam Otto is outreach ambassador for the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at (630) 513-4346 or potto@stcparks.org.

This article is adapted from a column appearing in the December 26, 2018 edition of Kane County Connects. For more nature-related articles, visit Good Natured.

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