It started innocently enough. Ten years ago at the Chelsea Farm Supply, Lucy Silverio’s youngest daughter, Antonia, was enchanted with the baby animals there, so Silverio bought her some chicks. But this spring, Silverio was given a choice: get rid of her chickens or go to jail.

Where I grew up, down South, chickens are a nasty business. They’re also big business. You don’t have to know all the gruesome details to understand that chicken farms don’t belong in town. They’re noisy, smelly, and dirty. That’s why we keep them in the country.

Lucy Silverio didn’t have a farm. She had a flock—seven chickens, to be exact. For ten years they lived peaceably in her backyard, providing her family with fresh eggs. Her approach to raising them is reflected in the title of a class she taught last year on backyard chickens—”The Beauty of Chickens.”

But this April, the city ordered her to get rid of the birds within ten days or face ninety days in jail and up to a $500 fine.

With this action, Chelsea is bucking a nationwide trend. Cities all over the country are changing zoning codes so residents can raise “city chickens.” New York City, Los Angeles, Madison, and Seattle are among the places that now allow backyard flocks.

The chicken craze is at least partly a sign of the tough economy, something like the victory gardens Americans grew during other hard times and during the two world wars. It also reflects the increase in healthier, locally grown food.

Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti both recently adopted ordinances to allow households to keep up to four hens. But last fall, Chelsea rejected a citizens’ proposal to legalize chickens in town.

Silverio lives in a neat dwelling with a white picket fence on West Middle Street. Her chickens were a colorful bunch in their red, gold, brown, and grey-striped suits, strutting and pecking around a tidy wire enclosure that adjoins a little white chicken coop. It is a sturdy, attractive structure, about four by eight feet, with pale yellow siding and a good-sized window, made mostly from reused materials.

“Antonia and I built this when she was six,” Silverio says. “Actually, I knew I what I was doing,” she adds. “I had chickens when I was young. I was about twelve years old, and I got some chickens and sold the eggs. I used my egg money and babysitting money to buy a pony.”

The Silverios’ backyard contains not only the chicken coop, but also numerous gardens, large and small, that she and her husband, Gonzalo, and their daughters created together over the years. The chickens were an integral part of their garden ecosystem. They helped turn fallen leaves into rich compost.

They also ate kitchen scraps and cut down on the bug population in their yard, supplying, in return, a delicious and nutritious source of protein.

But this simple relationship became complicated last year when Buff, one of Silverio’s hens, “went broody.”

“It’s very rare for a factory chicken that was raised in a drawer under a light bulb to try to raise young,” she says. “But she was determined. My heart went out to her.”

She got the hen six fertilized eggs from a farm. Two of them hatched. “She was a tremendous mother,” says Silverio. “She gave her chicks choice tidbits of food, warmed them underneath her feathers, let them rest on her back, and blew herself up like a pincushion to chase a fifty-pound dog that got too close.”

Sadly, one day a cat killed one of the chicks. Silverio had hoped the remaining one was female, but last December, “it started a very weak but unmistakable crowing.”

The family planned to eat the rooster. But then Silverio conceived an experiment—if she could keep him through the spring, he could fertilize more eggs and her hen could raise a new batch of chicks. The resulting females could replace her aging flock and be given away to start new flocks for others. The males could become dinner. For Silverio, raising chickens the old-fashioned way seemed a small but meaningful counterbalance to factory farming practices she finds horrifying.

Her immediate neighbors were fine with the plan, but another neighbor complained to the city. The rooster scared her dog with his nocturnal crowing, and the disturbed pooch kept her up nights.

“I asked Mr. Drollet [the zoning administrator] if we could just get rid of the rooster and keep the hens,” says Silverio. But he said the zoning code prohibited that.

Last year, a group of Chelsea citizens tried to change the zoning code. At the May 2009 city council meeting, Amanda Tarasow told the council: “There are city residents who, for reasons including food safety, economics, and environmental responsibility, would like to own a small flock of hens.”

Tarasow, who grew up on two different farms near Chelsea, has a degree in horticulture from Michigan State University. She got to know Lucy’s chickens when Antonia Silverio gave violin lessons to Tarasow’s children.

Council referred the proposal to the planning commission, and Tarasow brought eleven letters of support to the commission meeting, as well as sample ordinances on city chickens. “For me, the bottom line is, if my neighbor can get a dog without my permission and without any guidance from city council on how to raise it appropriately, it seems strange to me that I would have to do that with chickens,” Tarasow told me. “My neighbor can get a giant dog that’s going to crap in my yard half the time! Hens make less noise, they’re less disruptive, and they’re less dangerous than dogs. Unless you come into my yard, you won’t even know they’re there.”

The planning commission decided that chickens needed further discussion and kicked the question back to council, which kicked it back to the planning commission.

Councilwoman Ann Feeney, who was mayor at the time, explained: “The truth is that how to address the matter was confusing.”

It was confusing to citizens too, who were lost in the process and unrepresented when the commission agreed unanimously that “the Zoning Ordinance should not be amended to allow livestock on less than five acres.”

Chelsea is a relatively new city. One way to be a city is to shut out anything that resembles the country. People who have grown up in rural areas are more alarmed by the idea of backyard chickens, which they view as livestock. This is the case in nearly all of Washtenaw County’s smaller communities. Milan, Manchester, and Chelsea forbid chickens on lots smaller than five acres.

Dexter is headed in the same direction. Allison Bishop, Dexter’s community development manager, told me, “The village does not have an ordinance prohibiting chickens at this time. However, we will be recommending that our village council adopt one within the next few months.”

In contrast, residents in larger cities that are less connected to the land—the people of Saline, Ann Arbor, and Ypsilanti—are more willing to accept, and even embrace, chickens.

The latest wrinkle is that it may be illegal to forbid backyard chickens. In June 2009, the Traverse City reported that the Michigan Right to Farm Act prohibits cities from banning commercial farming, including raising chickens.

“A city resident need only sell one egg to qualify as commercial,” city attorney Karrie Zeits said.

So Traverse City officials put their effort into defining how city chickens would be regulated rather than whether they should be allowed, eventually crafting an ordinance similar to Ypsilanti’s.

Chicken enthusiasts in other Michigan cities have also cited the state law to successfully defend their right to raise poultry.

In the meantime, Lucy Silverio is growing flowers in her chicken pen. The Silverios have moved their birds to a new home—the farm of Jim and Nancy Paul in Freedom Township—and the rooster has given up his nocturnal nonsense.

It must have been as Silverio suspected: that he was crowing at the halogen light that floods into their backyard from the Jiffy Mix factory behind their property. But the real happy ending, she tells me, is that Buff the hen has gone broody again.

“She’s sitting on eggs that have been fertilized by that rooster. So hopefully he’s virile, and she’ll be successful and have a big batch of chicks!” She pauses. “That’s what I wanted. I feel really happy about that.”