The old Gullah phrases “com yah” and “bin yah” basically translate into “come here,” a description of those who have moved here from outside of the area, and “been here,” indicating those born here. This same phrase applies to the two fox species found in South Carolina. The grey fox (Urocyan cineroargenteus) is native to our state, a “bin yah,” while the red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is a “com yah,” or an introduced species.
The grey fox can be found through much of North America, ranging from southern Canada to northern South America. They are unique among canid species due to their ability to climb trees. Wild grey foxes live approximately eight to 10 years and are considered omnivores, subsisting primarily on a diet of mice and birds as well as fruits and vegetables. They are thought to be monogamous. Litter sizes average three or four pups that are typically born in spring.
By contrast, red foxes can be found throughout the Northern Hemisphere, including most of North America and Eurasia. They share many of the same traits of their relative, the grey fox: similar life expectancy, diet, monogamy, and reproduction. Red foxes are believed to have been first introduced to South Carolina in the late 1600s to the early 1700s by Englishmen wishing to recreate the sport of fox hunting. However, recent studies indicate that their “introduction” to South Carolina was due to the natural expansion of their range. Red foxes are now common throughout the state.
While the two species are quite distinct from each other, to the casual observer they can appear rather similar due to the fact that individual grey foxes can have a fair amount of red coloration. Likewise, some individual red foxes can be red, grey, or even black. One way to tell them apart is to look at the tail. The grey fox usually has a black-tipped tail while the red fox tail is usually tipped in white. Of course, if it is in a tree then it is a grey fox! Both animals are similar in size, although the red is slightly bigger, approximately 13 pounds versus 10 for the grey.
Both red and grey foxes have adapted to life around humans so they can frequently be seen in suburban areas. It is thought that being in close proximity to humans may reduce predation by bobcats and coyotes, the main predators of both species. Predation by other species is not the only threat to foxes. Red foxes are susceptible to mange, especially in urban areas. The mange mite burrows under animal’s skin, causing loss of fur and scaly, wrinkled skin.
Mange infections can be fatal. Both species are vulnerable to rabies. Infected foxes may exhibit one or more of the following symptoms: partial paralysis; staggering as if drunk; aggressiveness; and acting tame. A few years ago, I had a personal encounter with what was surely a rabid grey fox. I discovered the animal curled up on my front porch, awake but oblivious to my presence. It remained there for several hours until I called the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources to have the animal removed. This is an excellent example of why wild animals that appear tame should never be approached.