Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Gray, Kit and Island Fox

A June 21, 2012 comment by retrieverman has caused me to revise this post. I identified all of the foxes, but the last one, as gray foxes. He pointed out that my first picture was of a gray fox and that the next three were kit foxes. So I did a search for the differences between the two foxes and found his website where he discusses the differences. I then did more research on those foxes and the island fox. It did not even occur to me that I might be seeing two types of foxes at our campsite in Painted Canyon during the same night. On to the revised post:

Gray Fox:

In December 1996, while camped in Painted Canyon in the Mecca Hills, above the Salton Sea, with Dave and Bonnie Kenison and our families, we encountered three foxes, one of them a gray fox and two kit foxes. We were eating foil dinners cooked in the coals of a campfire and the foxes darted in to camp to eat scraps left on the ground and bread we were throwing on to the ground for them.The gray fox, below, is longer and larger than the kit fox, and can be twice as long. It is also is found in a greater geographical area, including the southern half of the U.S., parts of southern Canada, and down to the most northern part of South America, in Venezuela and Colombia. The key distinguishing feature of the gray fox is the black stripe along the top of the tail. Both can have a gray, or salt and pepper coat, with rusty yellowish sides of neck, backs of ears, legs and feet, but the gray fox has more gray on them than the kit fox. The gray fox also has strong hooked claws that allow them to scramble up trees. I saw a gray fox near our home in Redlands, early one morning, run up the side of a slightly bent pine tree.  

Kit Fox:

The kit fox, below, has a much more limited range. It is found in the arid southwestern U.S., as far north as the interior of Oregon, in parts of Nevada, Utah, southwestern Colorado, southeastern California, Arizona, New Mexico, parts of west Texas and northern and central Mexico.
It has proportionally larger ears, which help lower the body temperature, and a black tip on its tail, but no stripe along the length of the tail. Although it usually has the gray coat with rusty tones, it can be yellowish to gray and the back is usually darker than the rest of the coat.

The kit fox also has distinctive dark patches around the nose and the muzzle is more pointed and slender than the gray fox and the head and neck are not as broad and thick.

We had a wonderful time watching the foxes in Painted Canyon on that occasion, and saw other foxes, whether gray or kit, I'm not sure, on at least one other campout there. But the last four times or so I have camped in Painted Canyon, they've not been there, at least not visiting our campsites.

Island Fox:

The island fox, also known as the Channel Islands fox, is descended from the gray fox, and is found only on six of the eight Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California. There are six subspecies, each native to a specific island (although they can interbreed, they have genetic differences, such as differing numbers of tail vertebrae). They are much smaller than the gray fox and even slightly smaller than the kit fox. Their small size comes from adapting to limited resources on the islands. The northern Channel Islands appear to have been populated by the fox first, between 10,400 and 16,000 years ago. The Santa Catalina subspecies is the latest, having arrived between 800 and 3,800 years ago (it is also the largest). Like the gray fox, they have a black stripe along the top of the tail and the coat is darker and duller hued than that of the gray fox. In the 1990s they were nearly wiped out by golden eagles, which replaced the bald eagles that were wiped out by DDT. Four of the subspecies were put on the federally protected endangered species list in 2004, including the Santa Catalina island fox, and their numbers are coming back, due to removal of the golden eagles to the mainland, and other measures.

I saw one of the Santa Catalina island foxes, below, at the Cherry Valley Boy Scout Camp on Catalina Island in the mid to late 1990s. It appeared to be sick and not doing well.


  1. The top one is a gray fox.

    The next three are kit foxes.

    1. Thanks retrieverman for pointing this out. I've modified my post as a result.