Natural History - The Dogs of Fairfax County
Canidae, the dog family, is a group of small to medium sized predators containing about 35 species worldwide. Dogs are extremely adaptable, making their homes in almost every type of habitat on every continent except Antarctica. The earliest dogs occur in the fossil record about 40 million years ago. Dogs are mammalian carnivores with 42 teeth, non-retractable claws, and four toe pads on each foot. Although America’s largest dog, the gray wolf, is no longer found in Virginia, Fairfax County is still the home to four dog species: the domestic dog, coyote, red fox and gray fox.
Domestic Dog (Canis lupis familiaris)
As its taxonomic name implies, the domestic dog is familiar to most of us. Domestic dogs are a subspecies, and therefore a very close relative, of the gray wolf. Greatly variable in size and appearance, domestic dogs average about 60 pounds and are generally the largest local dog species (compare with other species listed below).
Domestic dogs live primarily in our homes and neighborhoods, but can occasionally be found wild in Fairfax. As a carnivore, their diet consists primarily of meat, but this varies according to what is offered by the owner.
Coyote (Canis latrans)
The coyote, or little wolf, is a medium-sized dog (weighing between 25 to 50 pounds) found wild in much of North America. It is tawny or gray colored and prefers open woodlands, woodland borders, meadows or brushy areas. The range of the coyote expanded considerably in the 20th century since it adapts readily to conditions caused by humans and its larger cousin and competition, the wolf, was largely eliminated. Coyotes arrived in Northern Virginia in the 1970’s, and their numbers have been rising.
Coyotes breed in late winter. Five to seven pups are born in an unlined den in April or May. Dens are usually concealed in the side of a slope. Both parents help in raising the young. Pups are full grown by their first fall when they leave their parents and disperse. They may live 6-8 years. Coyotes may be solitary or live in family groups. Although coyotes are often very vocal when living in open country, they may not vocalize when living in urbanized environments.
Coyotes primarily eat small rodents and rabbits. They will eat carrion (road kill) and a variety of other animals and some vegetable matter. They have been known to eat domestic cats and small dogs.
Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes)
Widespread in much of North America, Europe and Asia, the red fox is the most commonly seen wild dog in Fairfax County. They are generally reddish in color with a fluffy tail. However, they may have a lot of gray mixed into their fur or may be in a “gray phase” where they can be a charcoal color. They can be positively identified from their gray cousins in that their tail is tipped in white, they are usually a little larger, and they use more open habitats. Adult red foxes range in weight from 9-12 pounds.
Although native to North America, the red fox was not found in Virginia before European settlers arrived. English foxes were brought over and released for fox hunting. They began to displace the native gray foxes as forest (which is favored by gray foxes) was cleared for farm land. The released English foxes interbred with red foxes spreading south from Pennsylvania. The red fox was well established in Virginia by about the early 1800s.
Red foxes are primarily nocturnal, but may be active during the day. They prefer open or brushy habitat. Red foxes mate in mid to late winter, and 4-7 kits are born in March or April. The kits are full grown by their first fall when they disperse from their parents. Dens are usually in the side of a slope, but may be found in the middle of a field, under a log or even under a garden shed. Red foxes adapt readily to the presence of humans.
Red foxes are legendary for being smart: evading packs of dogs or circling back behind a person tracking them. They are often noted for acting more like a cat than a dog. They stalk many types of prey. They often pounce on small animals, leaping in the air and pinning them to the ground with their front paws. Their diet consists primarily of rabbits and mice, other small mammals, birds, insects, crayfish, fruits and nuts.
Gray Fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus)
The gray fox is found throughout much of North and Central America. It is slightly smaller than its red cousin, with adults weighing from 7-11 pounds. Gray foxes are generally blackish-gray on the back with reddish underparts, white on throat and chest and rusty-yellow hair on feet, legs and black in color, but frequently have red mixed in. They can be positively identified from red foxes in that gray foxes always have black fur on the tip of their tail.
The gray fox is the only member of the dog family that readily climbs trees. They tend to prefer forested habitat especially in rough, hilly terrain and around streams and lakes. Gray foxes are almost exclusively nocturnal and are seldom seen. Gray foxes breed in late Winter. An average of four kits are born in April in a concealed den in the side of a slope. Unlike red foxes, gray foxes may use their dens for much of the year. Kits are full grown by their first fall when they leave their parents. Grey foxes live about 2 years.
The gray fox’s diet consists of rodents, insects, birds, nuts and fruits. The gray fox often eats more fruits and nuts than the red fox, and has been known to eat an almost entirely vegetarian diet depending on food availability.