Notes on the interactions between red and gray foxes

Over the years, I’ve seen multiple antagonistic interactions between gray foxes and red foxes (pooping, feeding). Typically these battles are indirect, taking place over a few hours to days or even weeks – I see a red fox trail crossing a gray fox trail and it stops to poop at the intersection, I watch a gray fox feeding on a carcass and later find red fox tracks leading up to the carcass and scent marking over the gray fox’s scent marks. It’s a fascinating slow dance between the two species.

Range of Red vs Gray Foxes

In North America, gray foxes are found from coast to coast, barely dipping into Canada on the eastern part of North America; to the south, they are common throughout Central America and spill into the northern edges of South America (map). And the gray fox’s range is expanding northward, though this is largely making up ground for having been extirpated from many parts of its native range by early settlers.

While red foxes are absent from Central America, like gray foxes, they’re common from coast to coast in the United States. Their range is more boreal, extending up into Canada and throughout much of the warmer parts of Canada (map). It’s likely this northerly habit that allowed them to expand across multiple continents during periods of intense glaciation when land bridges made crossing oceanic divides much easier, and indeed they’re also native to Europe, Asia, and even northern Africa. They’ve been introduced well beyond their native range for sport and fur and are found in places like Australia.

A red fox gliding over a downed white pine, moving across Centennial Brooks (Centennial Woods, Burlington)

Habitat of Red vs Gray Foxes

Given such a wide distribution, it’s no surprise that both red and gray foxes are habitat generalists, and just as there’s considerable overlap in their ranges, there’s also considerable overlap in their habitat usage. Both frequently used mixed forests, deciduous forests, edge habitats and open areas. Gray foxes tend towards shrubbier areas with more cover and access to water. They’re also somewhat wary of urban and suburban habitats, though this seems to be shifting somewhat. Red foxes are pure habitat generalists and are just as happy in natural habitats as they are in urban and suburban settings.

Diet of Red vs Gray Foxes

Both foxes are generalist omnivores, eating birds, crickets, carrion, mice, rabbits, berries, eggs, and everything else smaller than themselves. As much as they’re generalists, gray foxes have a slight preference for rabbits. While gray foxes are adroit climbers, this is largely a skill saved for napping and predator avoidance (gray foxes are less likely than red foxes to be eaten by coyotes because they can climb). There’s a pervasive internet rumor that gray foxes nap in owl and hawk nests, but this seems to be unsubstantiated anywhere reliable. Red foxes, with their longer legs, are skilled jumpers and are well known for their pouncing attacks on subnivean mammals (video).

Gray fox feeding on the carcass. Notice the scent marking at 4:45 and the rabbit kill at 5:25. (video)

Competition Between Red and Gray Foxes

As you can see, these two species overlap considerably in the way they utilize the landscape. Competition is all but inevitable. Though it’s still not clear exactly how this competition plays out in the wild (source). With significant overlap in diet (source, source, source), competition for food can be intense, though it seems like this may be offset by slight differences in habitat use. So both hunt rabbits, but red foxes may take more out in open fields and wooded areas while gray foxes may take them in shrubby areas along brooks.

Direct conflict (like a physical altercation), even over food, appears to be rare (unlike with coyotes, which will predate upon both foxes). Even YouTube seems to be absent of videos of the two species interacting. Though red foxes (avg 7.4-14 pounds) are just slightly larger than gray foxes (7-13 pounds), gray foxes are somewhat more aggressive and seem to have a slight leg up in direct competition (source). In this situation, however, there were 3 red foxes and once they showed up the gray fox abandoned the carcass.

Some observations from the video
  • In the videos I captured of both red and gray foxes feeding on the deer carcass, the two species never interacted with each other.
  • The gray fox scent marked several times around and on the carcass itself, but I didn’t witness any scent marking by red foxes.
  • The gray foxes was more wary around the carcass after the red fox discovered the carcass (though the red fox again didn’t scent mark)
  • The red foxes were far more skittish and energetic in their movements
  • There was direct aggression (vocalizations, posturing and chasing) amongst the 3 red foxes
  • The red foxes were aware of and nervous around the cameras, the gray fox was indifferent
  • The gray fox started eating the head first
  • The red foxes ate the butt end first (I noticed this with the bobcats as well)

3 red foxes feeding on the carcass. Best part is at 3:15 when there's a hissing match (video)

Resources

Most of the data comes from Whitaker & Hamilton’s excellent Mammals of the Eastern United States.

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