Foxes in California: Types and Where They Live

Written by Emmanuel Kingsley
Updated: October 14, 2023
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California is a western state with one of the most diverse landscapes and climates in the United States. Its landscapes comprise deserts, mountains, and arid chaparral, providing habitats to different animal species. One predatory mammal in the state is the crafty fox.  

Foxes are intelligent predators and can survive in numerous habitat types. These wild animals can often be found in numerous places in California. They are often wary of humans and disappear quickly after being spotted, so little is known about them. However, this article will enlighten you on the types of foxes in California and where they live. Let’s go!     

1. California Gray Fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus californicus)

California gray foxes have short legs and are excellent tree climbers.

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The California gray fox is a subspecies of the gray fox, Urocyon cinereoargenteus, a widespread fox species in North America and South America. According to reports, the California gray fox is smaller than their widespread counterparts, with a head-body length of 22 to 27 inches and a weight of about 10 pounds.

The California gray fox has rather short legs and hooked claws, and this allows these foxes to climb up trees for food or to rest. Their fur is commonly silvery gray with patches of brown, yellow, or brown, and white fur on their throat and underbelly.

A distinctive feature of gray foxes is their black-tipped bushy tail. These tails can be as long as one-third the length of the fox, and they are quite helpful during winter to keep the foxes warm. Their eyes have slit-like pupils and pointy snouts, which gives them a catlike face.

These gray foxes are excellent hunters and have a wide range of diets. They have been known to eat small rodents, rabbits, birds, insects, and fruits from plants. Their dietary preferences depend on the food availability in their environments. 

Where in California Do California Gray Foxes Live?

According to reports, you can find California gray foxes from Southern California to Northern Baja California. They can be found on the west slope of Sierra Nevada. There have also been recorded sightings of these foxes from Pleasant Valley to the floor of Yosemite Valley.

2. Island Fox (Urocyon littoralis)

Island foxes are the smallest foxes in North America.

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The island fox is the smallest fox in North America. According to the National Park Service, island foxes are descended from the mainland gray foxes and are one-third smaller than their ancestors. Island foxes are about the size of a house cat, weighing between four to five pounds and reaching a maximum height of about 13 inches.

There are six subspecies of these foxes, all of which are endemic to California. Like gray foxes, island foxes have gray fur on their back, rust-colored fur on the sides, and white under. Their faces have black, white, and rufous patterns. However, the six subspecies can be distinguished by physical and genetic differences. The San Miguel island fox has a shorter tail and longer nose than all the other island fox species. 

The diet of island foxes comprises small animals, such as deer mice, crabs, insects, and fruits from plants such as saltbushes and cacti. Due to the coordinated effort to reduce the population of their main predators (the golden eagles), Island foxes can be found more frequently during the day, unlike most fox species. They also have a longer lifespan, with some reaching over 10 years.

Where in California Do Island Foxes Live?

Island foxes, as their name implies, are found on islands. According to reports, these wild animals are found in every habitat on six of the eight Channel Islands: Santa Cruz, San Miguel, Santa Rosa, San Clemente, Santa Catalina, and San Nicolas Islands. The island foxes on each island are named after their respective island.

The largest island fox species lives in Santa Catalina, while the smallest can be found on Santa Cruz Island. While they are the smallest foxes, they are the largest native mammals on the Channel Islands. It is believed that these foxes have been on the island for more than 10,000 years. However, the first fossil discovery was made about 6,000 years ago.  

3. Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes)

Cute Red Fox

The red fox, Vulpes vulpes, is not a native of California but is found in the state.

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Red foxes are the largest fox species worldwide and also the most widely distributed, found in Africa, North America, Asia, and Europe. According to news reports, there are two species of red foxes in California; native (Vulpes vulpes necator) and non-native (Vulpes vulpes). In the 1870s, the non-native species, Vulpes vulpes, was brought from the East Coast for recreational hunting and its fur. By the 1940s, the fox farms in California numbered 125.   

These large foxes can easily be recognized. They have slender black legs, pointy ears and snouts, and a big bushy tail with a white tip. The most common fur color of red foxes is reddish orange with a white underbelly.

Despite red foxes being the largest fox species, they are about the size of a house dog. They are about 26 to 42 inches long, of which one-third is the tail. Adult red foxes tend to weigh between 15 to 20 pounds, but some individuals have been known to reach about 30 pounds.

These foxes can reach up to 31mph, evading slower predators and catching prey easily. The red fox’s omnivorous diet comprises plants, fish, reptiles, amphibians, small mammals, invertebrates, and birds. Despite the presence of predators, such as cougars, wolves, and bobcats, the red fox population thrives and might even become a problem in some regions.

Where in California Do Red Foxes Live?

Red foxes are among the most geographically adaptive animals, and their habitats can vary from forests to grasslands, prairie, tundra, mountains, and deserts. According to reports, red foxes are quite common in central and southern California counties, such as San Francisco.

4. Sierra Nevada Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes necator)

Sierra Nevada foxes are vulnerable to extinction.

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Sierra Nevada foxes are the rarest of the three subspecies of red foxes found in the montane regions of the Western United States. The other subspecies are the Cascade red fox and the Rocky Mountain red fox. Sierra Nevada foxes can be found at higher elevations than the more popular and widespread red foxes and have adaptive features for more snow travel.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, these red fox subspecies are smaller than most fox species, with males weighing about nine pounds, while females reach seven pounds at adulthood. In appearance, these solitary predators are similar to the more populous red foxes, Vulpes vulpes. They have thick red fur, black, grayish-brown, or silver, and fuzzy paws. Their thick fur help them to combat harsh winter weather.

Sierra Nevada foxes are opportunistic hunters and foragers. Their favorite prey are gophers and hares, but like other foxes, they also eat fruits such as manzanita berries. These North American foxes were discovered in 1937.

Based on reports, the Sierra Nevada red fox population was estimated to be about 40 in 2021. These foxes are vulnerable to extinction, and this is due to reasons such as loss of habitats, climate change, and lack of adequate prey.

Where in California Do Sierra Nevada Foxes Live?

Based on account of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Sierra Nevada foxes can be found in Oregon and California. In the Golden State, these small foxes can be found in the southern Cascades, the Klamath mountain ranges, and much of Sierra Nevada.They prefer high elevations of about 5,000 to 7,000 feet but can also be found in alpines, pine forests, mixed conifer forests, and meadows, among other habitat types in the region. Recently, Sierra Nevada red foxes have been spotted around Sonora Pass, Yosemite National Park, and the Lassen Peak region.

Bonus: Do Foxes Prey on Pets?

fox roaming the streets of London in search for food

Red foxes are adapting to living in close proximity to humans.

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While the gray fox remains elusive, red foxes are seen more frequently these days as their range extends into urban areas. That raises the question of whether these dog-like animals have added our pets to their menus. The short answer is – foxes have been know to attack little dogs and cats – but not very often. Chickens, on the other hand – are a favorite of the cunning canines and require special fencing around the coop.

Unlike coyotes, which hunt in packs and are definitely a threat to pets – foxes focus on small animals like mice and are more of a threat to your neat yard when they invade your garbage. Gray foxes have jumped down from trees to attack small dogs when people are camping or invading their territory – but they seldom inhabit areas populated by people like red foxes do.

You can ensure the safety of your pets by walking outside with your dog when it goes out – foxes won’t launch an attack if you are near – and by avoiding the practice of de-clawing your cats. Cats are pretty good at defending themselves against foxes – so don’t disarm them of their natural weapons.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/RT-Images


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