You share Louisville’s urban core, wooded suburbs, creek corridors, agricultural fields, and park spaces with wild canines. The Canidae family contributes three species to Louisville’s diverse wildlife community – the red fox, gray fox, and coyote.
Canines have fascinated, concerned, and bewildered humans for a millennium. Their hardwired social, curious, skittish, and sometimes hilarious natures made them a key actor in many a culture’s mythologies up through the Saturday morning adventures of Wil-E Coyote and the Roadrunner. Just ask anyone that has experienced the call of a coyote or wolf in the wild—canines still possess the ability to raise the hairs on our arms and necks.
Here in Louisville where our top-shelf residential predators, like wolves and mountain lions were extirpated years ago, encountering a fox or coyote in The Parklands is about as wild an outdoor experience possible. If you’re fortunate enough to see one of these guys, you’re now part of the very long-standing, push-pull relationship between canines and humans. This relationship is as old as time itself.
Below is a brief summary of the three species of wild canines that call Louisville home, and a quick reference guide to help you distinguish them in the field.
Our most common canine resident, the red fox is quite fond of the mix of open fields, shrubs, and forests that typify The Parklands. With a diet consisting of small mammals and carrion, there is no shortage of food sources for reds in the bluegrass region. Now don’t let the “red” in the title of the fox confuse you. A large proportion of our red foxes have rusty coats.
To help ID a red fox in the field, look for black lower legs (as if it’s wearing dark stockings), and a long tail that is nearly as long as the body. The tail will also have a vibrant white tip. When running, the fox’s tail is almost always straight out from the body. About the size of the average house cat (9-13 lbs.), foxes tend to look much larger when their coat is in great shape.
(Photo Credit – US Fish and Wildlife Service)
The native status of the red fox is in dispute, but the gray fox is 100% native to our region. This small fox species is a special resident of the park due to its rarity. Gray foxes are distinguished by a couple of things. First, their relative scarcity on the landscape. Second, they are nocturnal in terms of activity. Spotting them is very uncommon. Grays live in woods or early successional forests. Actively avoiding open fields or pastures, they are unique in that they are the only fox species that can climb trees. When supper time rolls around, the gray fox prefers small mammals like cottontail rabbits, moles, voles and carrion. In the summer they go nuts for grasshoppers.
Their coat is salt-and-pepper with a black stripe down the back and tail. Lacking the brilliant white-tip of the red fox, grays are also noticeably smaller weighing on average 7-9 lbs. Viewing a gray fox in the wild is one of the rarest wildlife encounters possible in Kentucky and is a once in a lifetime experience.
(Courtesy – US Fish & Wildlife Service)
Finally, the most controversial member of our local canine family – the coyote. Love them or hate them, you would be hard pressed to find a major metropolitan area that does not have coyotes in the news. From downtown L.A. to New York City (and Louisville), coyotes are some of our newest urban residents. Biologists tell us that coyotes firmly established themselves in Louisville around the mid 1990’s. Coyotes thrive here because they are incredibly adaptable to our settled human environment. Look for one to show up in the infield at the Kentucky Derby as they are here to stay.
Coyotes most frequently live in pairs or small family units making it rare to see more than two coyotes at any one time. Although they raise their young in secluded dens deep in the woods, coyotes are comfortable just about anywhere. Their diet consists almost entirely of small mammals, though their adaptability means they will eat almost anything (berries, fish, amphibians, birds, and human trash/dog food left outside).
Coyotes are easiest to identify by their size as they typically weigh between 20-30 lbs. in our region. This canine is much larger than a fox. The coyote coat can be tan, gray, or brown. Ears, legs, and paws are the same coloration as the body. When running, their tail is always down with the tip well below the spine. Their tail takes the position of a skittish dog. Their complex vocalizations range from howls, to sounds like babies crying.
If you run into a coyote in Kentucky, 99.9999999% of the time you’ll only catch a glimpse as they race away. However, sometimes they can be curious, which can seem aggressive. This behavior tends to freak people out. In this event, be loud, big and clap. Although these animals are predators, they are also highly skittish and easy to spook. Their presence in Kentucky is yet another very good reason to always keep your dog on a leash. And our behavior conditions their behavior. Park visitors should be big and confident on the trails. This asserts dominance.
(Photo Credit Kentucky Fish & Wildlife Commission)
Reminder – trapping, harassing, and hunting wildlife in The Parklands IS NOT permitted.
Recommendations when encountering a coyote – Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife
- Haze the coyote until they leave the area completely.*
- Never run away from a coyote.
- As a general rule, do not haze a coyote if they are with cubs or appear injured or sick.*
- If you are walking a small dog and you encounter a coyote, pick up the animal until the coyote has left the area. This is especially important during the time of year when parents are protective of den sites and their pups. They often see small dogs as potential predators that need to be dealt with.
- Use non-retractable leashes in order to provide a clear association between the dog and the human. It can be hard for coyotes to see that a dog is with a human when they are out 20 feet from their owner.
*Haze/Hazing: Hazing is a method that makes use of deterrents to move an animal out of an area or discourage an undesirable behavior or activity.