My friend here in the Sacramento area is considering getting hens and asked for advice. Apparently keeping hens alive for almost 4 years qualifies me to give advice. And somehow I thought it might be interesting blog reading. If not, here's a blog I've been enjoying lately.
We purchased day old chicks via mail order from Murray McMurray hatchery. Their minimums are really high and if our experience is any indication their sexing is inconsistent (several roosters in our supposedly sexed batch of ladies) so unless you need a lot of hens I'd buy chicks locally at Western Feed. During the spring they have day old chicks in the store with certain breeds certain weeks.
We got the "mixed fancy" pack from McMurray but if I were starting again I'd go for solid layers rather than "fancy" hens. I've heard Rhode Islands are good. Even better I'd get Americauna (the ones they lay green eggs). Our neighbor's Americauna lays in our yard all the time. She's a lovely hen and the eggs are gorgeous.
If you don't have much space (or even if you do) I think 3 hens is plenty. Two might even be plenty. But I might purchase 3-4 day old hens to account for, well, attrition. We started with 8 chicks. Lost one at a few days old (she seemed unwell when she arrived). One turned out to be a rooster and left via Craigslist. We had 6 hens for quite a while until one died. Five seems to be plenty for us. I'd love to buy some green egg layers but you have to buy them in pairs and I don't want seven hens. And I'm a touch worried about integrating new ladies into the pecking order (it's real, pecking order, and it's changed over time.)
Amy The nice hen. She's been sweet since she was a little chick. She even lets Oscar pet her. The "puff heads" lay white eggs.
Our neighbor has hens and was very clear that we'd need a coop that we could securely close or we'd lose hens to raccoons. I've seen raccoons in the neighborhood but we never lock the coop and have never lost a hen to predation. Our coop is quite tall with a branch where 4 out of 5 hens roost. It has nice little nesting boxes which are used inconsistently at best. In a future coop I wouldn't bother with nesting boxes. We spread straw in the bottom of the coop and I change it once a week (a bale is about $7 at Western Feed and lasts several months if we keep it dry)
Sunshine The stupid hen. I think she's more blind than stupid but she's low on the pecking order and with good reason.
Our hens have the coop and a mostly enclosed run but now the enclosed run is open to a larger, open run which includes the compost heap. They love to eat the veggie scraps thrown out for compost and the poopy straw makes great compost as well. Not surprisingly we have at least one rat that lives under the coop. It's the back corner of the yard so I'm not bothered but compost+hen food and water+sheltering coop is pretty much a rat mecca so....if you're solidly anti-rat hens (or compost) might not be for you.
Lemony a.k.a. BOB (big orange bird). Our gentle giant. She's so soft and pretty nice and lays nice brown eggs. But her fancy fluffy feathers catch her poop (and create disgusting mats of poop) and since I hate trimming poop crusted feathers I'd say skip the fluffy breeds.
Assuming you have some place for grown hens to sleep (a coop) and run around (that isn't your entire yard--they poop everywhere and eat everything) there isn't much more you need. We have a metal hanging water can and a metal feed hanging thing (both from Western Feed) and we buy them a 50 pound bag of chicken crumbles every few weeks (they don't like the pellets). When they're babies you need the little plastic baby water thing and feeder and a box and warming light but those are cheap.
We don't provide artificial light in the winter so the girls stop laying in the fall and start again in Spring. April started laying about a week ago and I assume the other girls will start again soon. When they're laying we check eggs every day but in the winter we check food and water every day or two (or three). They don't need a lot of maintenance as long as they have water.
It's nice not having to buy eggs all spring and summer but honestly I was sort of getting tired of having chickens. Until Oscar grew up a little and renewed my enjoyment of them as pets. He LOVES to watch them and regularly asks to see the "bawk bawks." He'll sit on the fence (with me holding him!) for a long, long time watching them. And now he can open the latch and get into the run to see them himself. So cute! I guess we'll be keeping the hens ;)