American red foxes have black ear tips and stockings, and their tail tip looks like it’s been dipped in white paint.
Credit: Dennis Jarvis/Wikimedia Commons

In a fable known to most schoolchildren, Aesop tells about a fox that has discovered a cluster of ripe, juicy grapes hanging out of reach in a tree. Try as he might, the fox cannot jump high enough to reach the grapes and finally stalks away angry, opining that they were probably sour, and he really didn’t want any grapes anyway. Hence our popular saying sour grapes when we disparage something we actually want but can’t have. 

Even if we didn’t know that Aesop was writing about some kind of European fox, we could tell which of our Maryland foxes — red fox or gray fox  — the fable refers to. Our gray foxes would not have been put off so easily; unlike red foxes, they are agile climbers and would just have shimmied up the tree to get the grapes. Foxes though they both may be, red foxes and gray foxes are very different in many other ways, too.

Red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) are the foxes of our popular culture. They’re the foxes chased by hounds and horses, the sly hero of the animated 1973 Disney film “Robin Hood,” Scarface and Vix in Ernest Thompson Seton’s Wild Animals I Have Known and the subject of 2013’s viral music video, “The Fox,” by the Norwegian duo Ylvis.   

Red foxes are also the most likely to show up in local backyards. They are the largest fox species in the world, weighing up to 15 pounds and stretching a little longer than three feet from nose tip to tail tip, although they often look bigger — their fluffy coat and tail can amplify their actual size. Wild red foxes in our area have a base coat that is, indeed, bright red, with distinct black stockings and ear tips, and a white tip to the tail.  

Red foxes are common and curious urban and suburban residents, and they easily adapt to living around people. They spend most of the year roaming freely and sleeping rough; only during the breeding season do they regularly use earthen dens. They’re often seen napping during the day in sunny patches of lawn.  

Gray foxes (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), with their shorter legs and blunter muzzles, look smaller when you see them side by side with red foxes. But looks can be deceiving; in reality, they are only a little smaller, maxing out at about 13 pounds and just under three feet long. There’s a lot of overlap in size between small red foxes and large gray foxes. 

The dark tip of the tail and plain ears and stockings make this a gray fox.
Courtesy of V.J. Anderson/USFWS Pacific Southwest Region

The base color of gray foxes is grizzled gray or brown, although many gray foxes have considerable red or russet color highlights, especially around the face, neck and ears. The tip of the tail is always black, but the tip of their ear is light-colored, and their legs don’t have stockings — they’re brown or cream and match the belly and chest fur.   

Gray foxes are more shy than red foxes and are less likely to be seen during the day. Surprisingly, you’ll often find them in trees— they have hooked claws that let them climb easily, and they may even have a den well up in a hollow tree. In the South, they’re commonly called cat foxes.

Both fox species will eat insects and most any small animal they can catch — especially mice, voles, and rabbits. Their hearing is so acute they can hear a mouse squeak 300 feet away (or even under snow) and leap 15 feet to catch it. But both foxes will also eat wild fruit, including fabled Aesop’s grapes; there’s even a species of wild grape in Maryland called fox grape (Vitis labrusca); it’s the wild parent of commercial Concord grapes.  

Both red and gray foxes are native to the Americas. Gray foxes originated here, while red foxes first immigrated from Europe about 400,000 years ago over the Bering Sea land bridge during a period of low ocean levels and huge ice sheets. American red foxes have probably been isolated from European red foxes long enough to be a genetically different species, and the two do look a little different — American red foxes have a silkier, shinier coat than that of their European counterparts, and that coat cursed them into being  trapped and shot for the fur trade. Some authorities differentiate European red foxes as Vulpes vulpes and American red foxes as Vulpes fulva or Vulpes vulpes fulva

When Ylvis ask in their song, “What does the fox say?,” they’re almost certainly asking about red foxes, which are very noisy during late winter when they are looking for mates. I see a lot of questions on community listservs this time of year asking about dogs incessantly yapping in backyards at night, or screams from children left outside in the dark. Both are actually fox calls, part of their large repertoire of vocalizations. The fox bark is the most common sound; it’s harsher and higher pitched than domestic canine barking. Both male (dog) and female (vixen) foxes bark. The scream, on the other hand, is usually a vixen advertising for a mate.  Here’s a sample of the wide range of fox calls you can hear in our neighborhood at night:


Have questions for Rick about the world of nature in and around the city, or suggestions for future ”College Park Wild” columns? Drop him a note at